One of the many benefits of working at a bookstore is that publishers send us ARCs (advance reading copies) of books for us staff to read, so we know what’s going on. The combination of debut Australian novelist, and Asia, and historical novel makes me very interested in a novel, so I grabbed this off the giant pile. And thanks to the wonders of technology, I’ve written this review at the beginning on July, even though you’re reading it at the end of August.
It’s 1930. The British are in Burma, and are showing no signs of leaving. Winsome, a half-Burmese, half-English young woman who has grown up in a convent, has just been married to Desmond, a doctor’s assistant. They move to Rangoon, where Winsome deals with her unhappy marriage by working in a photography studio. But when Desmond’s plan to ingratiate them into the higher classes requires Winsome’s help, he doesn’t realise the chaos this simple act will create.
I read a rather interesting essay by Thin, who talks about her worries that people will be put off by the word ‘bride’ in the title, something she did not want. It’s a good point – how a book is marketed will influence everything about the way it is received by booksellers, by reviewers, and by the general public. So I was expecting something pretty good from
It’s disappointing, then, that I have to say that this is not a very good novel. I’m still not quite sure what the point of it is. The basic triangle in the middle of this novel is hardly new – in historical times, a woman married to someone she didn’t choose finds sexual liberation in a man (or woman) outside of the marriage. We’ve all seen it before, and it takes a gifted author to bring something new to the table, or to make us feel surprised and excited about reading it again.
It rather sounds like I think Thin is a bad writer, which is slightly unfair. I don’t think she is – she hits all the right notes with nice descriptions of Rangoon, and I should make particular mention of the fact that she uses language to invoke a physicality that strikes you. Her use of smell descriptions are really well done, and while I’m fully aware that Vietnam is not Burma, having been to the former, and assuming they are vaguely similar, the portrait of the city is nicely done. But relying on your setting to tell a story that’s not all that interesting seems like a big gamble.
The biggest problem with The Monsoon Bride is that, for the first 150 pages or so, absolutely nothing of any consequence happens. Winsome gets married, her husband (surprise, surprise) turns out to be a giant douche, she falls in love with another man – and it all feels so inconsequential. I just didn’t care, which is perhaps, for me, the worst thing that can happen while reading a novel. Winsome lacks any kind of motivation as a main character, and she actually comes off as needy and whiny for a large portion of the novel. There’s several scenes where she lies at home, waiting for her lover to come, worried that he doesn’t love her any more. It doesn’t really scream feminism to me. I know that not everything has to, but it just feels a big wrong. Indeed, the character that was easiest to understand was Desmond, her husband. Completely unlikeable, of course, but his motivations made sense, and I could believe in him as a person.
The final 50 pages then present us with a weird situation, with absolutely no signposting. I’m not going to spoil it, but the whole ending feels tacked on, as though Thin had run out of things to talk about (worrying, since there’s not much going on), and decided to get on a soapbox about how bad colonisation is. Which, once again, is something that has already been done by one or two people.
I rather suspect that The Monsoon Bride would be an excellent short story. It has all those ethereal qualities you look for in a good short story, and characters that are sketched out enough for you to imagine the rest of their lives in that one reading you give to a short story. But for a full length novel, the whole thing feels stretched and shallow, leaving us with not much to talk about.