In the Fabled East, by Adam Lewis Schroeder

February 10th, 2011  |  Published in Book Reviews

BC Bookworld Review – In the Fabled East, Adam Lewis Schroeder (Douglas & McIntyre, $29.95)

Review by Cherie Thiessen

Myth and Mayhem

It’s the subject of many a myth and story – the search for eternal life and Shangri La. Sure, it’s hackneyed, but it still sucks us in, especially in the hands of a writer like Schroeder, and especially when under the cover of an historical fiction. It’s a tricky genre. At its best, historical fiction entertains while it enlightens. It needs that perfect balance: if it tips toward fiction, history can be upstaged; if it tips toward history, facts can smother fiction.

Telling the story through three narrators is another balancing act. What happens if we want to stay with the first narrator, Pierre Lazarie, a Sorbonne graduate who upon receiving his Baccalaureate in Oriental Studies, has journeyed to Saigon to take up a clerical position? He is, after all, pretty interesting, especially when paired with his acerbic, cynical counterpart, Henri LeDallie. It’s hard to get enough of that witty repartée, especially when it reveals so much about character, and bounces the plot along so entertainingly. It’s 1936, and life for the Vietnamese under the French, is no picnic.

However, the hauntingly beautiful, Parisienne, Adélie, who begins her story much earlier in 1886, soon assuages our frustration at being yanked away. She has the most amazing bad luck: deaths, sudden penury and early widowhood, and then – her own illness. Ultimately, she leaves her mother-in-law and her 9-year old son in search of the Fountain, determined to cheat death and return, to see her son grow up.

Adélie’s son, Captain Emmanuel (Manu) Tremier, now in his 30s, is the third narrator, and while he does not take centre stage until late in the novel, he makes a brief appearance soon after Lazarie’s arrival in Saigon to provide the motivation for the young clerk’s quest. In doing so, he also nicely ties all three narrators together. He’s in Saigon briefly before joining his new battalion, and has asked the Lazarie’s new employer, the Immigration Department of the Colony of Cochin-China, for assistance in finding his mother. The captain pulls out an old photo of her. One look, and Lazarie is in love. He will find her. It matters not that she would now be 56, if in fact she were still alive at all, which is highly doubtful. When she left, she was in the final stages of tuberculosis.

In true Heart of Darkness style, the reluctant LeDallie and excited Lazarie begin their trek down the Mekong and beyond, into the remote jungles of Laos. Ultimately, within a tiger’s leap of their goal, misfortune bares its teeth, and LeDallie dies a hero. Lazarie is forced to retreat, and his dream of finding the woman in search of the mythical Fountain of Eternal Life is reluctantly abandoned. Back in Saigon he will become more and more like the old colleague he’s replaced, as he loses his idealism and youth.

But now it’s time for Manu’s story, and again we don’t object to the transition because the subsequent mayhem is exciting. We’ve also begun to figure out where this is going.

It’s 1954. The French Indochina War is limping to its bloody conclusion. France has surrendered at Dien Bien Phu and Captain Manu Tremier is in retreat with his ragtag handful of soldiers, bushwhacking through the jungle toward Laos. Eventually, they wind up in the village of the Sadat, modeled after an actual Khamu village, Mak Tong. More cannot be revealed. With Schroeder, the plot can take surprising turns, and revealing it would simply not do.

With this young writer, you can have high expectations. In addition to characters you want to hang out with (or eavesdrop on), you’ll get an engrossing, frequently surprising plot to keep you second-guessing. You’ll also get a new appreciation for how good the English language really is in the hands of a literary acrobat. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll get so immersed in the world he creates that it might take some time to emerge from it.

His first publication, a collection of short stories in 2001, Kingdom of Monkeys, is partially set in Singapore. His novel, Empress of India, written in 2008, was also set in the same area, during WW II. It also earned him nominations for the in Canada First Novel award, and the Ethel Wilson Fiction prize. He must know these exotic parts well. Turns out, he does.

“I first travelled to Southeast Asia with my wife in 1996-97, and a visit to Changi Jail in Singapore inspired me to do the work that became my novel Empress of Asia. I went back to Thailand in 2001 to explore some areas that I hadn’t seen on that first trip and which the novel would have to cover, and I became intrigued with Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos—all comprising the former French Indochina—which I’d never set foot in. They loomed as this delicious mystery, but a mystery without a story. I then spent August, 2007, in Laos and Vietnam collecting hordes of material, for In the Fabled East.

Can we expect another book on these fabled lands? Probably not. Schroeder says he never started out with a plan to write three books about Southeast Asia, and now he’s ready to write a murder mystery set in 1958, right where he lives, in Penticton.

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