This novel tells the story of a mixed-race family and their trials and tribulations in Burma / Myanmar from the colonial period (before the Second World War) through the early 1960’s when a civil war was in progress. The father / husband, Benny, is ethnically Indian, religiously Jewish, works for the British, but was born and spent his early childhood in Burma. He marries a Karen woman (i.e. of the Karen tribe.) The central (and titular) character is the couple’s first child, Louisa. Louisa is a beauty, and for various reasons – none of which reflect her own preferences – she ends up a beauty queen and national celebrity.
What is fascinating about this book is how the many levels of humanity – from the individual level (e.g.Louisa / Miss Burma) to the international level – play into each other. At an individual level, each member of the family finds his or her life intruded upon by the nation’s conflicts. Benny ends up a prisoner of war of the Japanese and then later a prisoner of the Burman ruling regime. He feels beholden to the Karens because of a combination of factors involving repaying of debt, familial obligation, and friendship. Louisa ends up in the pageant – in part — because of the question of whether the leaders and Burman citizens are really serious enough about unity to allow a non-Burman into that high-status role.
At a national level, there is a rapid succession of changing situations. First, the country needs to thwart the Japanese invasion. Next, they must throw off the British colonial yoke, and, finally, Burma must figure out what kind of nation (or nations) it will become. The Burman leader wants to consolidate the country, while many tribal groups, including the Karen, want independence. Benny’s family is tied up in this conflict, in part, because of their Karen connection, but also the fact that Benny was able to exploit the post-war economy to his advantage and became rich after the war. This makes him, and his family, both important and simultaneously loved and despised.
At the international level, America and other global powers have interests in keeping Burma from disintegrating into tribal sub-states. In the early post-war period, these interests are largely economic, and involve the preference to have a solitary trading partner for Burmese goods. However, later, as “domino theory” takes center stage in American foreign policy, the interest shifts to thwarting the spread of Communism. (“Domino theory” was the idea that if a non-Communist government fell, others would proceed in a chain reaction throughout the region. It was a little simplistic, but reflected the anxiety of the times and was a large part of the justification for the Vietnam War.)
I found this book gripping and fascinating. The international intrigue and family tensions both work together to make an intensely readable work. Without getting into the ending, I will say that it feels a little bit rushed and anti-climactic. However, the events of the book give it plenty of tension overall, and there is a logic to the place the book ends. It is emotionally powerful to see how this family is repeatedly torn apart and must come together again through great difficulties. We also see how obligation and sense of duty play themselves out, often trumping other considerations.
I would highly recommend this book for readers of fiction, particularly those with interests in historical fiction and works that offer insight into a nation and a culture.