The Coffin Tree
In a striking and accomplished first novel, Wendy Law-Yone presents vivid pictures of Burma (where she lived until she was twenty), looks with wry irony at contemporary American customs and artifacts and creates a compelling central character whose experience transcends cultural barriers. The novel is permeated by death, ghosts, and the heavy burdens of the narrator’s personal and cultural heritage, yet it finally affirms life. The unfamiliar background is only one of the interesting ingredients. Law-Yone’s broader subjects are attachment and loss, the complex interweaving of isolation, individuality, and self-dependence, the continuity of personality, and the mature comprehension of the past that must occur if the central character—and the twentieth century urban human—is to adapt and survive.
The novel’s opening plunges at once and without explanation into the center of a complex family situation in Burma. The unnamed narrator, a girl of fourteen, does not supply the exposition that would make everything clear to Western readers but does give such a compelling view of her immediate situation that one automatically accepts her values and behavior. She lives with two elderly aunts, an uncle who stays with them to avoid responsibility for his own wife and children, a grandmother (who dies in the book’s opening passage), and a half brother, Shan, who is ten years her senior but seems—in his easy tears and casual irresponsibility—closer to childhood than does the narrator. Her own mother, who died at her birth, was a convert to Catholicism; the narrator attends a convent school run by Irish nuns. Her family is well-off if not wealthy; they live in a spacious compound inherited from a grandfather who was economic adviser to the last king before the Burmese monarchy was ousted. Her father became a revolutionary while at the university and commands a People’s Army that has temporarily seized power. Another coup sends him fleeing back to the hills. When the narrator is twenty, she and Shan are bundled onto a plane and sent to the United States.
Baffled by New York and too inhibited to take the help some Americans would be willing to give, the narrator nevertheless contrives ways to eat, learns to type, preserves her identity, and eventually secures an adequate clerical job. While she feels that she is mastering her new life, Shan is rootless and disoriented. Lacking the dreams and the social support Burma had supplied, he withdraws increasingly into fantasies and paranoia. The narrator, trapped by her sense of responsibility for her brother, endures two years of drudgery, anxiety, isolation, and repressed resentment while she tries to take care of him. By the time Shan dies, his psychic illness has infected his sister. Burdened by guilt and lack of purpose, cut off from Burma by her father’s death, she is committed to a mental hospital after a suicide attempt. The treatment she receives there may or may not do her any good, but the core of strength at the center of her personality allows her to reassert her independence and discover a way to meet life on her own terms.
The Coffin Tree, however, is not nearly so grim as the foregoing summary might suggest. The immediate pleasures of its tone grow from Law-Yone’s sharp eye for incongruous detail and from the narrator’s engaging personality. Even when she is a Burmese child conversing with her grandmother’s ghost, she is accessible. Her emotionally deprived childhood and her sudden flashes of boldness (despite the extreme timidity fostered by her cultural tradition) may remind the reader of the protagonist of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, 1847—and some readers may see their own experiences reflected in those of the narrator. Even people not suddenly faced by the differences between Mandalay and New York can hang up a telephone a dozen times rather than commit a message to an answering machine or can be too shy to question their hosts. Like Jane Eyre, also, the narrator can be desperately and refreshingly frank, as when she gets a job by telling the bemused interviewer, in answer to his stock question about her strongest and weakest points, that she dislikes work because she is lazy, forgetful, and was never trained for any kind of job but that, on the other hand, she is in terrible need, which might make her willing to learn.
With a combination of acceptance and wry detachment, the narrator sees both Burma and the United States with extraordinary clarity, and sometimes from slightly odd angles. Aunt Lily and Aunt Rosie, in Burma, remain girlish despite their white hair and missing teeth; there is “enough left, all in all, to flirt with the male masseur who came twice a week, and after he left to discuss celibacy as though the alternative were still an issue.” The signs in the mental hospital...
(The entire section is 1974 words.)