No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, October 12, 2007

#61: To All Appearances a Lady -- Marilyn Bowering

Bowering's first novel, To All Appearances a Lady, is set on the west coast of Canada in 1957 -- though many of the key events occur in the late 19th century, recounted to protagonist Robert Lam by the ghost of Lam Fan, his recently-deceased Chinese stepmother.
I think about what Lam Fan has said about how we came here -- by following the whaling ships. As if their well-worn routes from the open sea through the islands were like a path through the woods: trodden down and flattened, worn to bedrock ... Have both sea and land a record to keep? Do ship lanes and whale migrations and the blood trails left by the sea ravages of men -- just like roadways and railways -- tie strings of traffic round Mother Earth herself? ... It makes a sort of sense, I suppose, at least to a ghost. Who need not concern herself with what is now and what is past. It is all one line she treads.

Lam (half-Chinese, he goes by the name 'Lamb' to ease his way as a pilot in the close-knit and occasionally xenophobic maritime community) is a complex character. The novel is the story of his last voyage in the Rose: a trip up the coast to where the whales are, a trip which becomes a voyage of self-discovery, fuelled by Lam Fan's slow revelations about his parents, and his step-parents. Fan's ghost, a tiny frail Chinese lady deprived of her habitual opium (not to mention her life) and spiky and restless as a result, tells a richly-detailed story: should Lam doubt her tale, the briefcase of family documents which he discovered after her death is more concrete evidence.

Robert Lam's mother, India Thackery, was an idealistic reformer who emigrated from Hong Kong after her father's death, accompanied only by Lam Fan -- the abandoned daughter of the baker who, in 1857, tried to poison the white community with arsenic. Arriving in Vancouver Island, the two women found a community bubbling with unrest and conflict: a melting-pot of cultures and races where India's good works were drops in the ocean. She persevered, and found employment as a bookkeeper ... in an opium factory. (I hadn't realised that opium, or at least its production, was legal in Canada until 1908. The economy of the Chinese community seems dependent upon it, as employment and solace.)

Whilst doing good deeds, India became acquainted with a drifter, Robert Louis Haack, who carried as talisman a letter from the author Robert Louis Stevenson, whom he'd met in California before coming north. Falling in love with India, Haack developed ambitions to better himself: but his schemes went awry and he ended up imprisoned, unable to rescue India when the opium factory was robbed and she was abducted. Considering how many toes India'd stepped on, and how little protection she had, the thieves were pretty merciful: they marooned her on an island off the coast -- D'Arcy Island, home to a community of Chinese lepers.

And there she stayed 'til Haack, released from gaol, came for her, married her, and abandoned her after a single day.

The title is taken from a report into India's death: she drowned, and Robert Lam has never been quite sure of the circumstances. Fan, used to keeping her secrets close, reveals them only slowly: reveals the truth about Lam's parents, and her own involvement in their lives, last of all. But by then there are other proofs to convince Lam of what really happened on D'Arcy Island at the turn of the century. Proofs that, despite his unwillingness to accept them (unlike the ghost of Fan, whose company he welcomes but never questions), are inescapable.

It seems that everyone in this novel is displaced. Lam never quite fits with British Columbia, never marrying or, apparently, feeling much for anyone save his stepparents (perhaps because of the secret shame that he keeps close); Lam Fan, addicted to opium til the day of her death, trying to keep the memory of her guilt at bay; the lepers on the island, cast out from a world that is already far from their war-torn, famine-stricken home; India Thackery, alone in the world and abandoned by the man she loved.

To All Appearances a Lady opened up a period of history, and of migration, about which I knew almost nothing. Few of the characters were likeable (India, perhaps; Lam Fan, until near the end; Ng Chung, the most personable of the lepers on D'Arcy Island) but they felt real. And Lam, alone (but for a ghost) in the fog-bound inlets and deserted islands of the coast, is the product, the end, of all the stories, quietly bleak, embracing his fate.

Beautifully written and well-researched, not a cheerful book but a compelling story.

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