Miss Bur­ma

Char­maine Craig

  • Review
By – August 25, 2017

One mustn’t make the mis­take of judg­ing one’s rela­tion­ship to a per­son by how that rela­tion­ship ends,” says Ben­ny, one of the main char­ac­ters in Char­maine Craig’s sweep­ing and com­plex his­tor­i­cal nov­el Miss Bur­ma. He is speak­ing to his wife, Khin, and good friend Saw Lay, of his aunt Louisa. She was a war­rior in her way, Aun­tie Louisa,” he says. Did you know that’s what her name means? Renowned warrior.’”

It’s a bit­ter­sweet bit of fore­shad­ow­ing at the start of a sto­ry in which even the strongest bonds will be test­ed and frac­tured by the weight of con­stant war, eth­nic con­flict, and rev­o­lu­tion. It’s also a nod to anoth­er Louisa, Khin and Benny’s then unborn daugh­ter, who, in the course of the nov­el, will become both a renowned war­rior and a com­pli­cat­ed sym­bol of nation­al uni­ty as the win­ner of the Miss Bur­ma beau­ty pageant. (The novel’s char­ac­ters are based on the author’s moth­er, a Miss Bur­ma win­ner-turned-free­dom fight­er, and grandparents.)

At the cen­ter of Craig’s nov­el is the mar­riage between Ben­ny, a mem­ber of Rangoon’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, and Khin, a Karen — one of Burma’s long-per­se­cut­ed eth­nic minori­ties. Craig mas­ter­ful­ly weaves the lives of her char­ac­ters into the larg­er sto­ry of Burma’s his­to­ry, guid­ing read­ers along smooth­ly — if uneasi­ly — with­out bog­ging the nar­ra­tive down in a series of his­to­ry lessons.

Still, while Miss Bur­ma cov­ers only forty years of Burma’s com­plex his­to­ry, from 1926 to 1965, it can, at times, feel like far more. This is no fault of the author, but of the extra­or­di­nar­i­ly event­ful peri­od cov­ered in the nov­el, a peri­od that saw Burma’s tran­si­tion from a British colony to a rav­aged bat­tle­ground dur­ing World War II, to an inde­pen­dent nation dev­as­tat­ed by ongo­ing eth­nic strug­gles, polit­i­cal coups and assas­si­na­tions, and a mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship — not to men­tion the med­dling of region­al and inter­na­tion­al play­ers like Chi­na and the Unit­ed States.

The char­ac­ters in Miss Bur­ma expe­ri­ence these major events and many more per­son­al tragedies— tor­ture, arrest, and the deaths and dis­ap­pear­ances of loved ones, with remark­able reserves of strength. They live and strug­gle and fight for them­selves and for their coun­try in an atmos­phere of ever-chang­ing alliances, per­son­al break­downs, and deep­en­ing sus­pi­cions. Craig’s details and descrip­tions of life dur­ing and after wartime are har­row­ing and relent­less — the feel­ing that some­thing ter­ri­ble is about to hap­pen, once it sets in, hangs over every page. Yet these char­ac­ters per­se­vere, try­ing to find a way to do more than endure.”

Jonathan Arlan is a writer and edi­tor cur­rent­ly based in Kansas City. He is the author of the recent­ly pub­lished trav­el mem­oir Moun­tain Lines: A Jour­ney through the French Alps.

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