This is the second installment of a book that began with Sendker’s “The Art of Hearing Heartbeats”. Several characters from the first book reappear in the second, notably, a minor character named Nu Nu. Had I known it would also turn out to be the second installment in what is probably a series of at least 3 books, I would probably not have picked it up. I prefer to read a book that is complete in itself with a satisfying ending. This did not have a very satisfying ending. The reader is left hanging, wondering what lies in the future for Nu Nu, U Ba, Thar Thar and Julia Win.
When Julia Win begins to hear voices in her head, she wonders if she is going mad. Speaking to her friend Amy Lee, she discovers that others have odd gifts as well. She has been told that the voice belongs to an unquiet spirit, and that two souls now reside in her body “until death us do part”. Abruptly, she decides to leave New York, abandoning her job as lawyer in a powerful practice, and she returns to her father’s birthplace, Burma. She reunites with her half-brother U Ba, and she hopes to ferret out the reason for the voice in her head. She wants to find a way to grant peace to the restless spirit within her by resolving the issues troubling her, even though that same spirit keeps warning her against investigating further since it will only lead to disaster. Julia is desperately hoping to rid herself of the voice which comes and goes in her head with warnings and questions, the voice that interrupts her sleep and waking hours, so she goes on in spite of the warnings.
At first she does not tell U Ba what troubles her. Finally when she reveals her secret, he takes her to see an old woman in the village. The woman, Khin Khin, tells them the horrifyingly sad story of her sister Nu Nu’s life. Nu Nu, a character who briefly appeared in the first book, suffered many tragic losses and faced difficult Solomonic choices which led to her inability to find peace, even in death, as the pain of those decisions continued to live on even after she passed. She had to decide to save one son while consigning the other to uncertain death in military service as a porter and shield for the soldiers in battle. After hearing Nu Nu’s tale of woe, U Ba and Julia set out to find out what happened to Thar Thar, the son that remained behind in the army to an uncertain future and probably certain death.
A bit incredibly, they find traces of Thar Thar’s life through interviews with various people. The last known fact is that living like a monk, he serves the needs of disabled children, often abandoned by their parents who cannot properly care for them. These children can offer no benefit to their parents in the future and have little value. He runs a home for a dozen youngsters that he comforts, feeds, clothes, and teaches. He provides them with a place where they are safe, loved and valued, even with their afflictions.
The relationship that builds between Thar Thar and Julia is the basis for the next book, I am sure. Nothing has really been resolved, the spirit is still at large, Julia’s future is in the air, U Ba’s health is in question and Thar Thar has deliberately disappeared. Although it was a tenderly written novel revealing interesting bits of Burmese history, opening a window on two contrasting cultures, third world and first world, it ended as a kind of cliffhanger, one that I had neither desired nor expected. If you are looking for a book that resolves its issues as it concludes, you won’t find it here.
Because the language of the book is so peaceful and beautiful, at times, with the prose becoming almost poetic (perhaps a bit too poetic when it comes from the mouths of supposedly ill-educated people), even with characters that are often not very believable, the reader may become enchanted with the supernatural and spiritual aspects of the tale. The beauty of the philosophy of the people is in stark contrast to the cruel history of Burma and its military. It is compelling as a read because of how it expresses life. The language, at times, was completely captivating.