From: The public library
For the challenge: Memorable Memoir Challenge
Recommendation found at: Sophisticated Dorkiness
In a nutshell:
In 1986, recent Brown university graduates Susie Gilman and Claire Van Houten decide to travel around the world, starting with China. China only recently had become open to independent backpackers. They start their journey with naive over-confidence but as their weeks in China progress, cultural disorientation, illness and Claire’s erratic behavior plunge the two women into nightmarish scenarios.
With time made available by the snowstorm in my area, I started and finished this book in one day. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is a gobsmacker of a travel tale, managing to be funny, awe-inspiring and scary all at once.
From the standpoint of nearly twenty years later, Gilman writes with unflinching honesty about the trip. She does not cover up her younger self’s failures and naivete. This is not to say that young Susie Gilman is unlikeable in the novel: I enjoyed seeing her discover wells of resourcefulness she didn’t know she had. Still, I appreciated that Gilman didn’t airbrush out some of the stupid things she said and did during that time. This perspective can come only with time.
Gilman’s writing is superb, conveying both the sights and sounds and smells of China as well as the inner confused swirl of her emotions and thoughts. Here’s an excerpt:
Elbowing through the gawking spitters, smokers and farmhands, I ran down the dank hallway after Claire, shouting, “Someone, please. Ni shou ying wen ma?” My voice broke then; tears dripped down my cheeks. I couldn’t find Claire; she’d been taken from me. This was far too much, way out of my league. “STOP” I yelled hoarsely down the empty corridor to no one, my voice dissolving into the damp vegetable air. “STOP!”
Despite incidents like that described above, Gilman also writes beautifully of the country’s grandeur, and particularly how she is humbled by the Chinese people’s generosity and kindness. The helpfulness of strangers – from both Chinese people and from fellow backpackers – is astounding.
Though I never had travel experiences as extreme as Gilman’s, I could identify with some of her struggles. I once had a travel companion who started feeling inexplicable pain in her knee. We decided to visit a hospital, where our basic French barely sufficed. That friend and I also had some interpersonal conflict that reared its ugly head during the trip. It is a strange thing to feel furious anger while standing at the top of a chateau in the Loire Valley. (Surprisingly, we actually became better friends after all that.) The problems between Claire and Susie were much more serious, but at a certain level I understood the conflicting emotions Susie felt toward Claire.
If you are put off by the weird cover (the more common red cover – not the one I have used here) or by the title, don’t be. The red cover is all wrong for the book. Also, the title does not refer to some desecrating act at a Chinese landmark as I feared, but rather is a reference to a feverish dream recounted by Gilman. There is some mild sexual content and strong language, but it’s not as provocative as the book’s packaging suggests.
I hope that my review has stirred up your interest, because this book is an incredible read. Many thanks to Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness whose review made me want to run right out and read it.