Wanting: a frontier town, lying between China and Burma.
In a hotel room Na Ga considers how she got there, and where she might go next.
She tears cloth to make a rope. Maybe to escape, or maybe to hang herself.
But she is interrupted, by the news that the man who was to guide her over the border has chosen to end his life …
A compelling opening.
The Road to Wanting is not a happy book, not an easy book, but it is powerful, often beautiful, and took me into a world that I knew nothing about.
The narrative moves back and forth in town, slowly building a picture of Na Ga’s life, It took time and concentration to put the story together, but in time I did.
She grew up in a countryside community, but her parents sold her into slavery.
An American family saved her, and became a companion to their young daughter. But she was left behind, left to fend for herself when the political situation became unstable.
It was then that Na Ga was tricked. She found herself a slave again, in a brothel in Thailand,
She was rescued again, by another American. Will. He protected Na Ga for a long time, but eventually his home in America would call him back, and Na Ga would be left behind.
He left her money, and a guide to steer her home. Na ga wanted to go home.
But it wasn’t that easy. Years of conflict had changed Burma. Boundaries had moved, villages had been destroyed, tribes wiped out.
“I want to go home,” I said, still sitting where I had fallen. I wanted to be back in my own village, among the animals I knew and the cousins I played with, in the dirt yard behind the thorn hedges of our village gates.
Where was home? Should Na Ga cross the border and take her chances, or should she stay in Wanting?
It took time to put things together, but I’m glad that I did. The prose was rich and evocative, lyrical and still very, very readable. It drew me right to Na Ga’s life. I saw the sights, I heard the sounds. I was shocked, I was fascinated, and I was moved.
It helped that Na Ga’s first person narrative was clear and direct, and it hooked me from the first page. At first I thought she was passive, and yes she was, but I began to realise that she had never had the luxury of choice, that the course of her life had always been determined by other people, that she was doing what she had to to survive.
That made is difficult for me to engage with her, but it also allowed me to stand back and look at her life and her situation.
She had survived, she had accepted, and that said so much about her spirit, her character.
I closed The Road to Wanting thinking hard, and hoping against hope for Na Ga and her country.
I’m very pleased that this book was longlisted for the Orange Prize, and I’d be more than happy to see it on the shortlist.