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