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Miss Burma, by Charmaine Craig

January 11, 2017

Miss Burma, by Charmaine Craig.  Grove Press (2017), 368 pages.

3 stars

A dramatic historical novel about a young woman and her family in Burma during World War II and the conflicts and dictatorships that followed.

Charmaine Craig is the daughter of Louisa, the “Miss Burma” whose story she tells in her new books. Louisa came to the United States after the events recounted, and Craig herself was born here.  Craig graduated from Harvard and earned a creative writing degree from the University of California, Irving.  She has acted in film, taught creative writing and has written a previous novel, A Good Man.  In Miss Burma, Craig never mentions her personal connection to the stories she tells and leaves readers to guess which parts are historically true and which are the products of her own imagination or that of her family.

The book begins with the marriage of Benny, a Jewish resident of Burma, and Khim, a woman of the Karen tribe, a group regularly discriminated against by the more prosperus Burman tribe.  Benny is employed by the British who still colonize Burma at the beginning of the story.  Benny and Khim remain central to the book even when attention shifts to their daughter, Louisa.  During World War II, when Louisa is a young girl, the Japanese invaded Burma.  Death and confusion overwhelm the country.  The family members are scattered.  Benny is captured and tortured by the Japanese, and Khim forced to protect her young children alone.  Benny returns to the family, but nothing returns to normal.  The British grant independence to Burma, establishing a dictator, friendly to the Allies, but intent on destroying tribal minorities like the Karin.  Americans enter the political scene with contradictory goals and betray the Karins.  Inside the family, personal betrayals fester.  Pretense and forbearance seem to have replaced spontaneous love.  Benny is jailed again.  Louisa grows into a beautiful adolescent who wins beauty contests and lives as a glamorous public persona before marrying and becoming more deeply involved in the resistance.

Themes of suffering and betrayal, distrust and solitude run through the book, but there were so many characters and so much was happening that I found it difficult to become invested in the book.  Some images, particularly those of torture, were disturbing.

Readers who are interested in Burma, Southeast Asia, World War II, or American Cold War policies may want to read this book as well as those who enjoy fast paced, multi-character, war novels.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 12, 2017 10:40 am

    Ive read very little about the history of this part of the world other than Amitav Ghosh The Glass Palace. This sounds like it would be a good option to fill in my knowledge gaps. BTW I never knew there was a whole tribe using my first name!

  2. January 12, 2017 12:33 pm

    I haven’t read much about this region either, and I learned a great deal, especially about the impact of World War II. I have read and reviewed several excellent books about Bangladesh and Malaysia on either side. You might check my blog for those if you are interested in the region.

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