Sunday, June 14, 2009
Repeat After Me - June Indie Debut Pick
I MET DA GE ON A TUESDAY AFTERNOON IN THE FALL OF 1989. New York was orange and confident then, leaves breezing the curb and towers poking above the skyline. I was teaching English as a second language at a school called Embassy when he arrived two weeks and fifteen minutes late. He stood in the doorway watching the class with an expression it was hard to identify -- some combination of grin, smirk, and sneer. I thought he might be shy.
Thus begins the relationship of Aysha Silverman, ESL teacher rebounding after a college breakdown, and Da Ge, an engimatic, troubled dissident who fled China in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Despite language and cultural differences, the two develop a sensitivity to the other's harbored secrets. Aysha falls in love with Da Ge long before he asks her to marry him as a step toward attaining US citizenship. Aysha becomes pregnant, but before she can share the news with Da Ge, he commits suicide.
The story spans two decades and continents, and Rachel DeWoskin bridges these spans with rich detail and evocative prose. Beijing comes alive, it's own character, as does the less foreign but equally exotic New York City. Besides the settings and cultures, the strong ensemble of secondary characters are not easily forgettable: Aysha's best friend Julia One, Embassy Student Xiao Wang, De Ga's father Old Chen, and Julia Two, the perky tween-age daughter. Most believable is well-drawn relationship of Aysha with her mother.
Da Ge haunted me days after I finished the book. Tough, vulnerable, secretive, I turned pages to find out what made him tick. His character and blunt insights on life Chinese and American are revealed best in the essays, submitted to his 'Teacher', that preface each section. Rereading these excerpts a secnd and third time reveal layers of Da Ge unnoticed the first time through.
This is a quiet novel, complex in it's rendering of love in all its forms. The story meanders from time period and country, at times without sufficient guideposts to orient the reader. But the prose itself is straightforward and honest, and interesting enough to give pause for appreciation. For me, the story comes alive when Aysha relates the breakdown leading to her hospitalization and withdrawal from Columbia.
She asks: How do people know what to filter out and what to leave in? maybe we're permeable, and insanity is the loss of that membrane; everything floods in and out, uncontrolled.
In truth, the mental illness angle surprised -- and delighted -- me; from the front flap cover, the only inkling is of Aysha's "nervous breakdown". But both protagonists suffer psychiatric maladies, and it is in this suffering that their relationship is idealized and consummated. As someone who purposively seeks out books that explore the intersection of the unquiet mind and the restive heart, the central theme of mental unwellness was a bonus.
THE AUTHOR... RACHEL DEWOSKIN certainly has "platform" - educated at Columbia University, she moved to beijing where she worked in public relations before taking a starring role in a Chinese soap opera likened to "Sex and the City." Repeat After Me is her first novel; her memoir Foreign Babes in Beijing was published in 2005.
THE PRESS... Small but mighty, OVERLOOK PRESS has one of the most eclectic portfolios of fiction and non-fiction among all the independent presses. Sympathetic to emerging writers, I troll here frequently, and suggest you pay a visit as well.
Repeat after me - this is a gem of a novel. Read it.