In this close and complex novel, Audrey Chin puts the reader inside the mind of her main character, Swee Lian. The theme of the novel is given away by its title. It is a woman’s journey to find herself and learn to be strong. She does this in part through her affair and subsequent marriage to a man who teaches her about the jungle, life and love. He also helps her find and succeed in her career.
This story starts with a prologue set when Swee Lian is middle-aged, but the main part is written in past tense, starting when Swee Lian is a teenager from a working class family in Singapore. She does well academically, and her mother stands up to her abusive husband and makes it possible for Swee Lian to attend University. We see that Swee Lian is herself socially very inept. Her affair with a professor who runs the outdoor club begins during her second year at University. She becomes so caught up that she flunks out of college. He is married. When the narrator becomes pregnant, aborts the child, and attempts to kill herself, his wife leaves him. He feels responsible for his young charge and ends up marrying her. Their marriage brings Swee Lian into the magical world of the forest people who inhabit the forests he studies, and she matures into a strong woman with her own career.
Although Swee Lian talks often about the love with her husband, this is not the slow budding of a romance one typically encounters in a romance novel. Instead, it is more about her growth through the marriage.
I enjoyed many aspects of this complex story. Overall, it is well-written. I loved sentences like this one:
I emerged from seclusion cautiously, coming out soft and without form.
The interactions with the forest (her first explorations are a priceless set of errors I know that I would make) and its people are fabulous. Swee Lian’s brash friend acts as a wonderful mentor. I liked that the story sat within academia, yet wore that mantle lightly. And, to me, the last hundred pages were extremely compelling. I loved watching the weak character change into someone who flies.
This is not the kind of novel that ties everything up into clean packages, and it shouldn’t be. It is a deep and interesting exploration of who we are as human beings. It uses the classic weak protagonist who must change to do this (and, I admit, at times I hated her and wished she didn’t reflect any aspect of myself. I almost didn’t continue yet I was so glad I did).
However, I think this novel has weak points which detract from its essence. Although this is a minor complaint, the quality of the writing is so good that I hated to find so many little typos. It needs a good edit, simply for grammatical and typographical issues (though it’s much better than a lot of books I’ve run across recently. What is the problem with writers these days?). For example, some of the early sections switch back and forth between first and third person in a single sentence, as if the novel was originally written in third and the editing didn’t catch all of the third persons.
However, there are a couple of deeper flaws which bothered me a great deal. The first one is the foreshadowing that the previous lovers of John, the husband, affect the marriage bed. This is implied, yet it never happens. Yes, Swee Lian occasionally worries about the ex-wife, but no incident ever occurs that would indicate John is thinking of others when they make love. In fact, he seems unrealistically in love with Swee Lian. I kept expecting some previous lover to show up, or him to call out someone else’s name, or for him to have an affair, or some reason for this to seem so important. For example, here:
The body remembered images of himself with Sarah. Images of himself with Iban women whose names he’d forgotten, but whose firm flesh and welcoming arms he still dreamt about. The body, his body, reclaimed memory and desire and layered it upon my white skin, my responsive nineteen-year-old flesh, my bird-thin bones.
Chin, Audrey (2013-03-05). Learning to fly (Kindle Locations 992-995). . Kindle Edition.
There are times when other issues don’t quite seem seamed together. For example, the Boy doesn’t want to hear her stories at the beginning of the novel, yet he hangs on the stories at the end (and they cover the same time period). I’d like to see more incidents showing her as she encounters herself and is forced to change (the library incident is perfect), instead of so much talking about her transformation.
Still, all in all this is an excellent first novel and well-worth reading.