In her fourth novel, Glorious Boy, Aimee Liu begins with a marvelously mysterious and enticing scenario: “When Shep lifts the blackout shades, a thin film of gray invades the bedroom, exposing his annoyance.”
However, this is more the story of Claire, his wife, than of Shep. That isn’t to say it only follows her. Opening in 1942, Claire’s story actually starts in 1936 when she meets Shep, a young doctor guilty of a youthful error in treatment that led the British empire to “punish” him by effectively exiling him to New York. She sees him as “serious” and “disarming” as well as one of the few men who takes her dreams of studying primitive cultures seriously.
A month later, they are married and on their way to his duty station, the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal where he will serve as a doctor at Port Blair. Ironically, given that Shep is still undergoing his penance, the island operates as a British penal colony for political prisoners.
Once there, they hire Nalia, an eight-year-old who’s “not pretty, but obviously perceptive,” to care for their infant son, Ty, the “glorious boy” of the title. Claire notes that the young girl possesses “an uncanny ability to intuit whatever Ty wanted or needed—as if the children had their own spiritual language.” The young boy seems to straddle the “primitive” and “civilized.”
To pursue her anthropological hopes, Claire also befriends a local boy of indigenous roots who teaches her the difference between “transactional language” and “spiritual communication,” which she soon understands “wasn’t silent at all [but] positively cacophonous, once [one] learned to listen.”
Days before Pearl Harbor, when the United States would begin its own similar practice, the authorities begin rounding up those they suspect may be sympathetic to Japan. The war has “finally caught up with them.” Meanwhile the British hold over the island falters as they hear advocates repeating Japan’s rallying cry of “Asia for Asians.”
When Rangoon, a neighboring Burmese city, falls, civilians are ordered out of Port Blair with a single standing order devastating to Claire: “No local borns or natives.” Because of the connection between Nalia and young Ty, Claire promises to find a means of getting Nalia off-island as soon as she can. However, an earthquake separates Claire from the rest of her family along with Nalia, and it’s not too long before the island has fallen, taken over by the Japanese army.
Sending Ty with Nalia into the island’s jungle for safety, Shep is captured trying to secure passage off the island for the three of them. Shep comes to realize that perhaps “the balance he and Claire struck together might be too fragile to survive anywhere other than ‘paradise’.” Once in India, Claire—like Shep—blames herself for the series of events separating them, dedicating herself to retrieving her son and rescuing her husband. Meanwhile, forced into isolation farther up the island, Ty becomes more a creature of the jungle than a child of the empire.
Although Claire first “wondered whatever had possessed her to think she was qualified to communicate with [the Biya] people,” her knowledge of the tribal language allows her to find a way to rescue those left behind. Working with the British army, she offers to assist their intelligence network after reading about the Navajo “code” used in the European theater of the war.
Liu’s narrative is periodically interspersed with the field notes, journal entries, and letters Claire writes as she learns as much about herself as she does the tribal natives she’s come to analyze.
While the characters are complete and interesting, even when not necessarily the best of people, where this novel really shines is in Liu’s ability to transport her readers to the places the narrative takes place. She presents the island as a place where one “stomps a warning foot” before entering rooms since “vipers and scorpion are always a concern when entering.”
Upon arrival, Claire sees the islands as a “behemoth [under a] coat of forest green [that] undulated, dense and vast” and as a “living creature [where the docks are like] a living claw [reaching from] the forest’s interior [where] palms wave like giant hands.” It is also alive with political prisoners as well as her focus of interest, the indigenous people who “looked more African than Asian.”
Personally, Liu’s descriptions of the jungles surrounding Claire brought me back to El Yunque, the mountainous rain forest of Puerto Rico, as well as the island’s other inland locales.
Above all else, the novel acts as a catalyst for the wakening of Claire from a “star struck” and ambitious fan of Margaret Meade to a person of her own, from a novice anthropologist to an inventive cryptologist. As nations dive into World War II, Claire learns “that ambition is worthless unless it’s rooted in human understanding.”
Shep cannot understand why his wife cannot “ever just follow the rules.” He “surrenders so deeply to the stupor of duty” that he fails to notice what Claire is astute enough to observe, namely that “prosperity” is often aligned with, almost synonymous with “slavery,” that those who are politically powerful and connected find deference to their desires, and that “colonial rules [prove to be] a tyranny of injustice, not to mention ineptitude.”
Glorious Boy is scheduled for release on May 12.