Wanting to Turn Back Time: On Aimee Liu’s “Glorious Boy”

Claire is ahead of her time in many of her observations. She is also prone to self-judgment and self-analysis, recognizing she’d gone to the Andaman Islands “mistaking youthful ambition as a virtue,” realizing that “ambition is worthless unless it’s rooted in human understanding.” She wonders why she thought herself qualified to undertake to communicate with the indigenous peoples she encountered. It’s in the everyday banality of motherhood and parenthood — from swimming lessons to toddler tantrums and the pains of breastfeeding — that Liu invites the reader to bridge the gap between the present and the past, between ourselves and others. When she sees the harbor of Port Blair come into view, she regards it “a miniature replica of a world she thought she’d left behind.” Later she notes,
They had entered a time capsule by leaving almost everything familiar behind and discovered a reality so strange and new yet ancient that met made every nerve in her body quiver. Ultimately, she finds this not in studying the island’s indigenous community, but by looking to children. In some places, her inner monologue feels too didactic. Newly arrived in a penal colony, she finds fault with the “British overlords” and compares their atrocities to the Spanish genocide of indigenous people in the Americas. Through seeing herself in the other, she questions the ethics of this mode of fieldwork, likening it to voyeurism. When she looks for differences among the islanders, she finds similarities between individuals and her own family. It’s in this desire to get the facts right that the story sometimes falters. The narrative takes place against the backdrop of a paradisiacal island with its banyan groves, palm-lined coves, and call of cicadas. Claire’s preconceived romanticism about exoticism is put into question. At its heart, this is a story about a family’s lack of control in the face of global crisis and motherhood, a lack of control that challenges colonial mindsets. Her work has been featured in publications such as the Guardian, Oh Comely, TANK, The Millions, the New Orleans Review, Monstrous Regiment Literary Magazine, and The Aleph Press (forthcoming). This novel speaks to something larger than the moment, but there are times when the author leans too much on expositional historical details that take us away from the characters’ subjective experience. On the year of her arrival, she gives birth to a baby boy, Ty. She will be conducting fieldwork among the island’s indigenous peoples; Shep will be working as a civil surgeon while collecting botanical specimens. Claire fancies herself a Margaret Mead, we’re told, and studies the work from her predecessor, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown. At its most effective, Glorious Boy transcends history and geography and gets to the heart of things. With historical fiction, there’s a thin line between evoking a past the reader can inhabit and describing it as a tour guide might. This separation alters each family member’s destiny. He doesn’t want to be like his father. Shep, too, has anxieties about parenthood. We witness Claire’s anxieties as a mother and as a woman prone to self-doubt. We witness her contractions during labor and her intrusive thoughts. Claire is here to become an “inconspicuous observer.” “Become invisible” is the advice given to her by eminent anthropologist Ruth Benedict. The narrative is interspersed with field notes, and Claire’s letters to parents, and the real-life anthropologist Ruth Benedict. They are to live in a penal colony, the capital Port Blair. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that’s the point to step back and fill in the details of their world.” This is where Glorious Boy triumphs. Stories are most impactful when we get inside the minds and heart of our characters. Liu has paid close attention to historical accuracy, from the languages spoken in the regions to newspaper headlines. Because, in the end, what has she to offer this community? Ballantyne, though more modern than the latter in particular, which today seems dated. Though these could be considered island tropes, they are deeply present in our collective unconscious — the novel does its job in evoking a sense of wanderlust, reminiscent of work by Rudyard Kipling and R. ¤
Elizabeth Sulis Kim is a London-based writer. As Hilary Mantel, author of the Cromwell trilogy, puts it in her rules for writers: “Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. But amid the chaos of wartime, Claire and Shep can’t find their four-year old son, Ty. MAY 28, 2020
ON THE FRONT COVER of Aimee Liu’s Glorious Boy there is a palm-lined cove under a twilight sky. There are moments where the reader is overwhelmed by detail, when the author might do better to strip away the scenery and allow us to see the world from Claire’s perspective. When the Andaman Islands first come into view, Claire imagines it “as a creature intent on driving the slender white snake of the beach back into the ocean.” She wants to leave the port and penal colony where history is unfolding and return to the “dense and lofty forests,” home to “the island’s true and rightful inhabitants.” Her desire to meet these people “would be like entering a time capsule.” She wants to escape history and return to a land such as this one, where the “primeval heat” seems to “pulse from shore to shore.” The island, for Claire, is a symbol of a past longed for and idealized. There are wild orchids, and in the air the scents of cardamom, mace, and cinnamon. Countless stories have already been told and retold about World War II. Here the setting is unusual — a colonial outpost in the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal during World War II — and yet the most captivating narrative within it could be set in any time or any place. But there is a sense Claire is here not just for career advancement; she wants to forget herself. Claire Durant, an aspiring anthropologist, and her husband Shep, a British physician, head to the archipelago in 1937. At the same time, Claire feels Ty is more remote and regards her encounters with him “like fighting a cornered animal.” In letters to Ruth Benedict, Claire articulates her concerns about Ty’s late speech development. Much of her fieldwork instead results in her revising outdated perspectives about the islands. Initially, she sees this archipelago, unknown to her, as a blank canvas onto which she can project her desire to return to an Edenic pre-history. She can’t help but imagine things going wrong. Unspoiled by modernity, this looks like island escapism. The narrative begins at a point of change. Later we see the shadow of her nature, the thoughts she will never speak, her maternal jealousy toward Naila, the little girl who they’ve hired as Ty’s nanny, who quickly forms a bond with Claire’s son. Except, of course, that they hadn’t actually discovered anything. This is especially important for historical fiction. Something about her present moment deeply troubles — or bores — Claire. Shep returns to the island to find their son with Naila, a local girl. When Japanese forces threaten the archipelago, Claire and her family must evacuate the island and leave for Calcutta. The Biya had been living here all along. Yet Claire’s critique of past malpractices in ethnography and colonial atrocities — especially when paired with her own family’s inability to help in the face of powers greater than them — challenges the white savior narrative. Indeed, Claire sees others and herself through the lens of a social scientist. Claire observes: “Far from the hostile glares of Radcliffe-Brown’s Andamanese, Imulu’s face bloomed with good-natured derision.”
Claire sees herself in the world and compares her situation to that of others, however unfamiliar and distant they might at first seem. M. She wants to turn back time. Claire and Shep move to another country as a World War breaks out. She and Shep were simply catching up. There is no indication this is a story about wartime. Witnessing Naila’s intuitive nature and her relationship with Ty, Claire notes, “it was as if the children had their own spirit language.” And then, of course, there is Ty, her “glorious boy.” Perhaps as it may be in her vocation, it’s this childlike state, the wonder and innocence that comes with it, to which Claire longs to return.