Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig (Grove Atlantic)


On a hot and airless afternoon last summer, I stayed inside and read Miss Burma, a strange book that took on the fictional-biographical shape of Vaddy Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, but much less successfully. This is a quasi-novel which is bogged down by its history, while the author should have stuck with the phenomenon who was her own mother, the legendary Louisa.

The book only flares into life when Louisa, Miss Burma, is on stage and again when she faces the future tragedy she has yet to know when she takes on the leadership left by her dead husband. But there is all too little of Louisa, far too much of her parents' history, and this sinks the novel.

An extraordinary woman who used her beauty wisely, Louisa remains legendary among the Karen, who claim that she is still alive, riding through the jungle on a white horse. Half-Karen herself, she grew up dominated by the politics of separatism and nationalism, a child whose life was war-torn and uncertain, who quickly learned that only her beauty could save her.

She covered her courage and her brain with the advantages given to her by her face and figure, until a general saw through her stunning mask and married her for the qualities that the rest of the world was eager to overlook. And that is the story of Miss Burma, padded much too generously with Louisa's mother’s life story and her father's role as a device to convey the country's history. As a novel it fails. It turns Louisa into little more than a footnote and thus it barely works.

But even so it sent me to the Internet to learn more about this woman and that means the author achieved at least part of what she wanted to do. Although Charmaine Craig's choice to focus on the efforts of her grandparents more than she did on her mother was a bad mistake, she probably thought it was the nobler approach. Her attempt to honor a wide panorama of history rather than the story of a beautiful freedom fighter who led guerrilla soldiers as a young widow, eventually married an American, and continued her struggle from the U.S. is praiseworthy but mistaken. Her passion lies with her mother and Louisa is the life of the book.

But it was a brave attempt and Craig deserves points for trying. I’ll keep the book for awhile and reread the ending that I raced through last night, history-bogged as it was. The final paragraphs are perhaps the most gripping of the entire novel but are also the most flawed. We know Louisa lived because she gave birth to the author, but we have no idea in what manner she survived her  crossing of the Salween River and her time of fighting alongside a brutal leader of men. One more chapter that took those last paragraphs and expanded them would have made such a difference in the entire work. It's a pity that Charmaine Craig didn't do it.~Janet Brown