“I have loved works of fiction precisely for their illusions, for the author’s sleight-of-hand in showing me the magic, what appeared in the right hand but not in the left…”
I got a pleasant surprise at the beginning of this book – the narrator, a (fictional) lady called Bibi, is dead. The fact that the narrator of this story is a ghost is something I hadn’t realised before I started reading it, and suddenly, the whole tone of the book, and my expectations of it, changed.
Bibi is, or was, a Chinese woman living in America, having left China many years before, who had arranged a trip for her and her friends to travel through China and across the border into Burma (or Myanmar, as it is officially now known). But before she gets the chance to experience any of the wonderful things she had planned, she mysteriously dies – possibly murdered. Her friends go on the trip with a new guide, who takes Bibi’s well planned itinerary, but he is soon pressured by the others into not following it. This, the reader learns at the beginning, leads ultimately to the whole group going missing on Christmas Day, and what follows is the haphazard story of their (mis)adventures.
The fact that Bibi accompanies the group as a ghost is a great plot device, as it allows the reader to see things that otherwise they wouldn’t be able to. Bibi’s supernatural insight sets you up for various impending disasters, from the bacteria festering in everyone’s stomachs after eating at a bad roadside café, to the inner thoughts of each member of the group, to the motives of the Burmese locals as they believe they have discovered a re-incarnated God amongst the wayward travellers. Bibi, of course, cannot communicate any of these dangers to her friends. Her all seeing eye, along with her interjections on the history and culture of all the places they visit, helps to move the story on in an interesting and unusual way.
Some of the characters are kind of irritating, I suppose, and seem not to pick up on things that should be fairly obvious. Harry in particular is a rather exaggerated character, who swings from wise and intelligent to bumbling and naive. But this is the point – this is human nature. A trip to a foreign land with a group of people who don’t all know each other can bring out both the best and the worst in them. As a rule, people can sometimes be fairly irritating, gullible, tiresome… etc. This book is as much a commentary on human relationships as it is about clashing cultures (and – dare I say it – the arrogance of American tourists), with politics and history thrown into the mix, all narrated by a ghost who is strangely accepting of most of the twists and turns the journey takes (even with the mystery surrounding her death and the misinterpretation of her funeral requests.)
“Death was not a loss of life, but the culmination of a series of releases. It was devolving into less and less. You had to release yourself from vanity, desire, ambition, suffering, and frustration – all the accoutrements of the I, the ego. And if you die, you would disappear, leave no trace, evaporate into nothingness…”