10 September, 2013
'A Thousand Perfect Things' by Kay Kenyon
I'm returning with a review of A Thousand Perfect Things by Kay Kenyon. I want to start by saying that this book surprised me. I've never read anything by Kay Kenyon before, so when I got the ARC of her newest book I didn't know what to expect, and my reaction was mixed.
Like a lot of books, I started it on the train on my way to work, which made it really awkward when I started crying less than twenty pages in. So, something I haven't talked about here is that my grandfather passed away in July, at age 85 and after a long battle with heart and lung disease. We were very close; I'm still trying to metabolize the fact that he's gone, and I'm pretty sure I'll be trying for a long time to come. So reading about our protagonist Tori and her bond with her grandfather was a wrench-- even more so when Sir Charles takes sick and dies (the part that had me in tears-- good work, Ms. Kenyon), leaving behind a family who thought he was crazy, and an idea that consumes Tori's focus and is the basis for the entire story to come.
Grief does things to you. It's a weird alchemy that takes root in your mind-- some features of your life become less important, or perhaps only seem to do so as you become listless or depressed or angry. But the opposite can also happen, a calcifying of thought and focus into a diamond-edged intent that takes no prisoners. This is what happens to Tori in the wake of her grandfather's death: the dross of her life seems to melt away, leaving her with only the truly important things. She's determined never to let herself be trapped into marriage, and she vows she will find the mythical golden lotus, the magical holy flower her grandfather had come so close to finding on his travels abroad many years before.
So I was having feels, as they say, which was half of what kept me reading. The worldbuilding was the other half-- it's strange and whimsical and a tiny bit problematic, all of which made me instantly curious to see where it would go. While this novel reads like many other British Victorian travelogues, A Thousand Perfect Things takes place in an alternate universe with two continents: Anglica, the colonizer, the fantasy Great Britain where science rules all and logic prevails; and Bharata, the colonized, the India allegory where magic and mysticism still hold sway, where ghosts and monsters are as real as lions, tigers and bears. Tori is in some ways a typical quirky heroine-- in a Victorian society, a brainy woman in love with botany (and born with a club foot to visibly mark her as an outsider just in case her intellectual pursuits left any doubts) and in love with her grandfather's idea that science and magic could be studied, not as two opposing disciplines, but side by side in a composite way of understanding the universe. I wondered if she would be predictable, or if the cautious sympathy I felt for her through the first few chapters would remain. Happily, it did.
Now, I'm not saying that Tori is the most original heroine ever, but she's familiar in a comfortable way, and Kenyon mostly sticks to following Tori's emotional journey in her storytelling, pursuing what she sees as the fulfillment of her grandfather's legacy. But following that path also allows Kenyon to talk about the legacy of racism and cultural appropriation in Bharata. Through Tori being forced to confront the fact that Sir Charles stole the lotus petal from its home in Bharata, and the repercussions that action had on the people who had viewed it as sacred, I couldn't help mulling over the concept of cultural theft and privilege. I thought about The King and I and its more realistic and savvy movie counterpart Anna and the King. I thought about Midnight's Children and that blog post on xoJane where the comments blew up over who's allowed to wear bindis. It was weird-- not what I'd expected from a book that looked quite innocent of agenda on the outside.
There's a lot of murky territory in here-- the narrative itself is a good adventure with a lot of food for thought, but in the end what's the message? Tori's foot gets healed by magic and she becomes a mystical "chosen one" when she decides to stay in Bharata-- what does that say about physical disability and heroism, and why isn't the chosen one of Bharata someone who was born in Bharata? And ultimately none of the Bharati were characterized with the same depth and texture as Tori (though if I'm honest, most of the secondary characters were less than vivid) leaving me to wonder why this story was told from the point of view of a white girl. I understand that the thrust of the story, the culmination of that emotional journey, is Tori finding a place where she feels like she belongs, a place she feels safe. It's okay that Bharata is that for her, I just would've appreciated a more nuanced portrayal of how she got there.
On the other hand, I'm always swayed by good writing, and a big part of what made me like this book was Kenyon's language. She writes Tori's voice with that cool ethereal tone I associate with Jane Eyre and her contemporaries, noticing every detail of the world around her and her experiences in it, painting a beautiful picture that's just a little bit remote. And in the end I liked Tori herself a lot. She was real and strong and interesting, and vivid enough to carry the entire book, even in spite of the other critiques I have.
This is a book about giving up expectations, and about legacy. A legacy can be physical or intangible, a small object or a big idea, and A Thousand Perfect Things deals intimately with both. It was a fun read, and gave me a lot to think about. I'd recommend it with the caveat that if race and cultural appropriation are issues you care about, you might find the book somewhat troubling. But it is a beautiful story, beautifully told. There's something to be said about reading a book that shocks you by speaking to the hard, painful thing you're going through, just when you need to feel like you aren't going through it alone, and if for no other reason than that, I'll always remember A Thousand Perfect Things with fondness.
You can read more about Kay Kenyon at her website, and you can buy A Thousand Perfect Things on Amazon.