'Behold' harsh, lyrical, haunting
By Christine Thomas
Special to The Advertiser
By Christine Thomas
Lois-Ann Yamanaka is used to raising eyebrows. Her portrayal of life as she sees it (she was born and raised on Moloka'i) has shocked readers and evoked charges of racism — particularly in her novel "Blu's Hanging," which some claim reinforces sexual stereotypes of Filipinos. This penchant for brutal realism, seen in her entire trilogy about growing up in Hawai'i, generates expectations for Yamanaka's future work, but her new book defies them yet again. Instead of portraying the harshness of her world, she conjures the intangible and the ethereal.
Her new novel, "Behold the Many," depicts life in 1900s Hawai'i, centering on the experience of three sisters, Anah, Aki and Leah Medeiros, who are sent one by one to an orphanage after contracting tuberculosis.
Though not entirely obvious why, the book begins in 1939 with the death of adult Anah's daughter, then jumps back to 1913, when the sisters are little, and proceeds from there.
The girls' family promises to visit and bring them home from the orphanage when they get well, but they wait out each visitors' day alone. Their Portuguese dad, Dai, a luna at the Oahu Sugar Plantation, focuses instead on making more children with his suffering Japanese wife, while their brother, Charles, once their protector, remains absent and elusive. The ghosts of many "dead children caught in the branches of the ironwoods" that surround the orphanage become their only link to the fate of their family.
Many perspectives influence the progression of the girls' story, with even minor characters able to break into the main narrative and speak to the reader in their own voices, much like Yamanaka has said ghosts from a nearby orphanage interrupted her own life in Hawai'i. She told one interviewer that the present-day ghosts wandered into her home and played with her son's toys, so she made them offerings and then gained permission to tell their story through this book.
Since "Behold the Many" is not bound to one viewpoint, Yamanaka has room for Anah's first-person account of the death of Leah, the first sister to succumb to the disease. The passage is as beautiful and lyrical as it is sad: "I kiss Leah's face. ... The sister kisses her face. The priest kisses her face. The bells begin their slow clang. They carry her body on a plank of wood. The children stare. The priest prays. The sister weeps. The children weep. The reins jingle. The bells clang. The buggy pulls away."
Though this novel is different from her others, with a flowing, otherworldly and truly haunting atmosphere, Yamanaka's argu-ably signature elements are still present. The lives of nearly everyone in the novel are marked by poverty; the girls, and others like them, are ostracized by the community because of their illness; and the family unit is dysfunctional. In this case, the relationship between the girls' parents is mentally and physically abusive, and Dai "drank and drank like many of the plantation men to forget the hardship of their days." He also sexually molests the girls, an experience described subtly and almost without judgment. After Aki and Leah are sent away, "Charles began sleeping beside Anah every night," for Anah "had become her drunken father's dawn whore, until the morning Charles held her and would not let their father take her."
There remains the depiction of the rawness of life that many have found difficult to read in the past, but the truth of the girls' lives and of history dictates where Yamanaka's imagination can take us. This constraint ultimately allows her skill as a writer to stand out, evidenced most clearly in the book's highly structured yet largely weightless telling.
Most of the novel showcases Yamanaka's flexibility of style, for there is straightforward narration, but also letters, lists and transcription of characters' thoughts. Food description is abundant, and just one of the ways Yamanaka integrates the details of the time, place and culture into the story. Since Anah hasn't seen much of Honolulu or anywhere outside the orphanage, the reader can smoothly learn about old Hawai'i through her eyes, and see the "saimin lady dragging her red wagon filled with two big pots of noodles and broth over charcoals and bowls of chopped-up meats, eggs, green onions, a bottle of shoyu, and barbeque sticks for a nickel."
It is disappointing, then, when the story ends predictably but with lingering questions and confusion. Anah eventually leaves the orphanage, but it is unclear whether or not she is cured. And it is never totally understandable why Anah and her husband, Ezroh, a former student at the orphanage, have so many children when they are each born physically broken. But when Yamanaka struggles to wrench the story back to its starting place, suddenly resurrecting long-absent Charles near the end, the story takes on too many new characters and details that detract from the earlier beauty and fluidness.
Yet all is not lost. Yamanaka's success in creating a world and characters that cannot fail to enchant, and her undeniable facility with language, outweigh any challenges with completion. "Behold the Many" remains a story with, as Anah's oldest daughter is envisioned, "indomitable radiance."
Christine Thomas is from O'ahu, where she is at work on a novel set in modern Hawai'i.