Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman

2009. 304 pages. (Hardcover)

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.


Filed under Memoir and Personal Essays

8 responses to “Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman

  1. Erin Leigh

    I think I should stop subscribing to your blog since every time you post about a new book, I immediately want to read it.

  2. What a provocative title! This sounds very interesting. I’ve been getting more and more interested in China, especially now that I have a Chinese roommate. I think I may have to put it on my TBR list.

  3. Sometimes the title and/or cover just made you wonder! I probably had been put off by a book because the title and/over cover doesn’t sound attractive (e.g. The Glass Castle cover – the blue one – made me thought it was a boring book… how wrong was I!) Though I guess the title of this book does make you take a double look.

    Regardless of cover and title, it does sound like an interesting read! Going to the ever-growing TBR!

  4. Jason

    I’m a sucker for a good travelogue, but this is a book I may have to get around to later this year. Glad to hear you enjoyed the story. Does it make you want to go to China?

  5. Erin – That’s how I have been feeling about all these book blogs that I’m now subscribed to. My to-read list has grown exponentially.

    Literary Omnivore and Christa – Definitely you could not say that the title is boring and in fact probably helps it to be remembered!

    Jason – The book revives my desire to travel internationally more than it does specifically for China. As she traveled in the 1980’s and China has changed a lot since then, that means the China she encountered is not really there anymore, in some respects. Though I would like to see the Great Wall and also Yangzhuo county sounded like a beautiful natural landscape.

  6. Thanks for linking to my review — I’m so glad you enjoyed the book! I listened to it on audiobook, and the emotions you mentioned seemed even more vivid. Sadly, it was an abridge version, so I’m going to get the book myself to read soon.

  7. kay

    Great review! I’ve heard some good things about it and it’s on my TBR list. I really like that cover though, so I’ll probably get it as a paperback when i can!

  8. I have this on audiobook and keep forgetting about it. I think I will enjoy it when I get to it!

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