Tuesday 15 June 2010

Book Review: Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman

 From the back cover:
In 1986, Susan Jane Gilman and a classmate embarked on a bold trek around the globe starting in the People's Republic of China.  At that point, China had been open to independent backpackers for roughly ten minutes.  Armed only with the collected works of Nietzsche and Linda Goodman's Love Signs, the two friends plunged into the dusty streets of Shanghai.  Unsurprisingly, they quickly found themselves in over their heads--hungry, disoriented, stripped of everything familiar, and under constant government surveillance.  Soon, they began to unravel--one physically, the other psychologically.  As their journey became increasingly harrowing, they found themselves facing crises that Susan didn't think they'd survive.  But by summoning strengths she never knew she had--and with help from unexpected friends--the two travelers found their way out of a Chinese heart of darkness.

When I picked this book up I expected it to be about the travel adventures of two young women, freshly graduated from Brown University and ready to take on the world.  What I found...well, it wasn't quite as simple as that.  Susie and Claire, the two main characters, certainly begin their journey thinking they are "young and brilliant", the "leaders of tomorrow", and particularly as feminists they feel empowered to do what might seem impossible.  Working both for and against them was an epic naivete so profound it could only have been the product of an Ivy League education.  Gilman herself acknowledges this:  "Like most grandiose ideas, ours had begun stupidly."  But instead of realizing they were about to bite off waaaay more than they could chew, they are excited by the perceived challenges that await them, and they even entertain romantic notions of joining the ranks of the history's great explorers.  "All we'd thought was:  Hey, let's be Odysseus.  Let's be Byron.  Let's be Don Quixote, Huck Finn, and Jack Kerouac all rolled into one--except with lip gloss.  Let's conquer the f*cking world."

They soon find themselves living the reality of traveling in an undeveloped Communist country where they don't speak the language and very few people speak theirs.  The language barrier is deeper than sheer linguistics;  the two quickly find that they don't fully comprehend the extent to which political ideology can permeate a culture and personal life, and they are shocked and often distraught to find concepts like privacy and personal space are as foreign to their Chinese hosts as the two tall and gangly Westerners themselves are.  This was the sort of culture clash I expected to read in this book.  But as interesting as that is, it really only serves as the backdrop for what begins to happen to Susie, and especially to Claire, and for the changes that occur between them, and it is these changes that truly make this book fascinating.  The psychological and physical pressures of their adventure affect each of them quite differently, and the result is a page-turner of a book.

I won't give away the surprise to the plot, but I will say this:  When Brianne from Hachette Book Group first offered to send me two books to review, I was much more interested in the other one.  In fact, I only requested Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven as almost an afterthought.  But when the package with both books arrived, I picked up this book and read the first page.  That was all it took--I was hooked!  I rarely put it down over the next few days as I read it, and didn't even pick the other book up until I'd finished reading this great memoir.  I really enjoyed it;  it was easy to read, very entertaining and I just couldn't wait to see how it ended!

You might enjoy Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, too!  It's available in bookstores now, or you can order it online at Amazon.com or your favorite online bookseller.  Thanks so much to Brianne from Hachette Book Group for giving me the opportunity to review this great book!

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven 
By Susan Jane Gilman 
ISBN: 9780446696937
Related Posts with Thumbnails