Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Smoke of Spirits: Review
By Claire Frances Raciborska
Published in 2010
Published by Falconers Press
I was sent this copy in exchange for my review by the author. I was not paid for this review.
Before I moved to Taiwan, someone once told me that in every expat community there tends to be a significant proportion of people who have run away from something in their home country. Whether or not you agree that this is true, this concept of running away from your past is the basis of this novel. Lucy, our protagonist, has found herself in Taiwan after what feels like a mad dash away from her native South Africa in a bid to maintain her sanity and salvage her identity. What she finds here is a raft of unlikely companions and an affinity with this crazy wonderful island that I also call home.
Who are we? Are we our culture? Are we our past? Are we who others think we are? These questions are universal as people from everywhere struggle to figure out who they are. When Lucy comes to Taiwan, she is guilt-ridden and cast adrift from her immediate family as a result of a recent tragedy. We find out in the prologue that she believes that she has killed someone and that this someone was very close to her - but that's about all we find out about it until the very end of the novel. In between time we meet a cast of characters who become Lucy's makeshift family: Rashnid, who has left India to escape religious and social restrictions; Missy, who has left Australia due to commitment phobias and Jenna, also South African, who has come to Taiwan to celebrate her new-found freedom from the shackles of an unhappy marriage and the responsibilities of motherhood.
Something this book does extraordinarily well is to track the arc of culture shock that most foreigners experience upon arriving in Taiwan. From the oft referenced "trafficking drugs carries the death penalty" sign which you see as soon as you get off the plane to the inexplicable feeling of menace lurking around every corner, the description of this experience was so close to mine it was like reading my diary! Luckily, as Lucy settles in to Taiwan, she comes to love Taiwan with all its hidden beauty and the warmth of her people meaning that the experience of culture shock is contextualized and dealt with rather than leaving the reader with the feeling that Taiwan really is a scary, nasty place. Reading this book really gives you an excellent insight into what it's like for someone from a western culture coming to live in Taiwan. If you're interested in coming here, this book is a good place to start. Yes, it's fiction but all in all, it's an accurate depiction.
There were a couple of things I had a problem with in this book. The first was how long it took for the full story of what happened to make Lucy run away to be revealed. I really don't like being given repeated teasers of "Something terrible happened to me" without being told something new about it. I don't mind waiting for the full story but I do take issue with being reminded that I still don't know. Building suspense for a reader is great but stretched too far can just cause frustration. The second issue I had was that the ending was a little strange for me. The concept behind it is really good but it didn't feel like it was smoothly woven into the fabric of the rest of the story.
Overall, this was a very high quality novel. So far it has been self-published but I wouldn't be surprised at all if a publisher picked this up - in fact I really hope they do. It's very well written, it has a great story set in a setting that not many people know that much about but it has themes that are international in their reach, making it a tantalizing mix of the original and the universal.
If you're interested in getting a copy of this book, please check out this webpage.