When I'm Gone, Look For Me in the East by Quan Barry: A review

How do I even begin to sum up this book? How can I describe the experience of reading it? It is set in a culture so completely alien to my own that it is difficult to find any reference point from which to start to understand it. And yet I found reading it an entirely mesmerizing and lyrical experience.  

The story briefly is this: The setting is Mongolia. There, twin brothers, Chuluun and Mun, had become Buddhist monks. They had been "discovered" when they were eight years old and Mun had been recognized as the reincarnation of a deceased lama. They had subsequently been taken to live in a monastery. 

The twins are now in their twenties. About a year before the action of the novel, Mun had renounced the monastic life. He was drawn to the temptations of the world and had chosen to live a secular life. Chuluun, however, has been faithful to the monastic calling and it is through his eyes that we experience events. He is our narrator.

The twin brothers have a gift that is something like telepathy with each other. Each knows what the other is thinking. For Chuluun particularly, this is a problem as he is privy to his brother's carnal mental images. Each of the brothers does have the capacity to shut off his brain from invasion by his twin, and each brother freely uses that ability.

As the story opens, a lama has died and Chuluun has been chosen as one of the monks to be sent out to search for his reincarnation. He enlists his brother's rather reluctant aid as a driver to take him on the quest. The rest of the story relates their trip out into the countryside with the monks interviewing young boys who may be the lama's reincarnation.

The research that went into the writing of this novel is impressive indeed. There is so much detail here about the culture of Mongolia and Tibet and about Buddhism in general. I found it all fascinating. It made for a slow read, not because it was not interesting but because it was. I sometimes found myself rereading passages to ensure that I was understanding what the writer intended. 

I had not read any of Quan Barry's work before but I was not surprised to learn that she is an award-winning poet. Her fiction, too, sometimes felt like reading poetry. For example, at one point Chuluun reflects: "Renunciation is an act of liberation. It sets loose the light shining deeply within each of us, a light we can count on in the darkest dark. When you drop the world's bait, you see the world as it is. When you desire absolutely nothing, you become free." That last sentence would serve as a suitable mantra for one's life.

This tale of an intriguing culture told through the voice of a very relatable and sympathetic character counts as one of the most completely different and interesting books I have read so far in 2022.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Comments

  1. This is new to me and it sounds fascinating. I've always enjoyed reading about a cloistered life and opportunities to learn more about Buddhism is a bonus as well.

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    1. I found it very interesting and I have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone interested in the subject matter.

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  2. An impeccable review, Dorothy, to stimulate the interest of many I am sure - including me.

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    1. I am delighted to hear that. I hope the book will find an audience. It's not for everyone but what book is? But there is much to enjoy about it and learn from it.

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  3. I love that quote! And I can see why you wouldn't want to speed through this book, not when the author writes like that. :)

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    1. I think the quote is pretty representative of the book as a whole.

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    2. It sounds like a book I'd enjoy. I wonder, though, why the book got only a four from you. Had you given it a five, I'd have picked it up as soon as I could.

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    3. The narrative dragged a bit for me at times. That's why I decided to knock off a star, but it could just as easily have been a five-star read. I'm trying to be extra judicious in awarding those five stars.

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  4. I've read many books on the cloistered life and we see it here in my country as well. Not common but definitely there amongst both Christian clergy and the Buddhist monks. This must be very good reading. Thank you for the review.

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    1. I liked the book very much. It was well-written and dealt with a way of life of which I have little knowledge, so I found the aspects of Buddhism and the monastic life that were detailed to be very informative.

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  5. I am so intrigued by Buddhism. When you become a teacher in the Netherlands, you also have to study different types of religion, because you can have children in your classroom from that religion. I always loved those lessons. So this definitely sounds like something I highly enjoy! I'm adding it to my TBR :)

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    1. Then, Esther, I think this is definitely the book for you!

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  6. This does sound fascinating, especially since most of my traveling these days is confined to the armchair variety. I just watched a documentary about a motorcycle trip by two Brits that included Mongolia (in which one of the principals came back later to adopt a little girl he met in in orphanage there), and I was surprised at how different the region was from my preconception.

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    1. I actually learned quite a lot about the region and culture from this book - not that I will probably remember it all a year - or even a week - from now. But it was an entertaining read.

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  7. My partner looked into Buddhism when he was going through his spirituality phase. He said it was his favorite of all the ones he'd studied. This sounds pretty good!

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    1. I've always thought that Buddhism perhaps made the most sense of all the religious faiths of which I have a nodding acquaintance.

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  8. I read this one! Yes it's quite different. Some interesting passages in it. Quite a sandstorm right?

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    1. It was well-written and one of its strengths was its descriptions of physical events and settings. She really brought them to life.

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