Backlist Bump · stuff I read

Backlist Bump: Edinburgh by Alexander Chee

Summary from Goodreads:
Twelve-year-old Fee is a gifted Korean-American soprano in a boys’ choir in Maine whose choir director reveals himself to be a serial pedophile. Fee and his friends are forced to bear grief, shame, and pain that endure long after the director is imprisoned. Fee survives even as his friends do not, but a deep-seated horror and dread accompany him through his self-destructive college days and after, until the day he meets a beautiful young student named Warden and is forced to confront the demons of his brutal past.

[Backlist Bump is a new feature I’m trying – essentially, when a new-to-me author has a new book out often I feel like I need to stop and back-up to a previous book for comparison.  Alexander Chee gets the honor of being the guinea pig. (Sorry, Alex.)]

In February, the literary world will receive the sublime gift of Alexander Chee’s new novel The Queen of the Night (start drooling now, I’ll have a review up in January).  About three chapters into the DRC for Queen, I decided I had missed something in not reading Chee’s only previous novel, Edinburgh.  I’d read some of Chee’s short pieces but not his novel.  So I tracked down a used copy of Edinburgh – the novel is, sadly, currently out of print.

From the first line, Edinburgh had me caught and held fast:

After he dies, missing Peter for me is like swimming in the cold spot of the lake: everyone else laughing in the warm water under some too-close summer sun.  This is the answer to the question no one asks me. (Edinburgh, page 1)

The story of pre-adolescent Fee, narrated by his adult self, is a heart-wrenching tale of music, betrayal, and self-preservation.  There are places in this story where I couldn’t breathe.  Chee does not shy away from the painful parts of the book – the sexual abuse Fee and his fellow singers suffer at the hands of the choir director, the shame, the confusion – and yet it doesn’t feel graphic or gratuitous.  I think the first hundred pages or so might be hard to read for a survivor of such abuse, but the way Chee explores Fee’s survival compared with that of his friends is haunting. Fee, as a young man exploring the possibility that he might be gay, feels the weight of survivorship differently from his friends who struggle to reconcile their own sexuality, either as straight or gay or questioning, with their history of abuse. Even as Fee entered adulthood, and seemed to have found an equilibrium in his life, fate brought the past back around in a circle, like a musical coda.

Love melts all our murder. As much as it makes it. (Edinburgh, page 51)

At the heart of this book, though is Alexander Chee’s writing.  I read the majority of Edinburgh while on an airplane – tucked into a corner of my window seat, the end of my pen in my mouth, barely breathing, trying to hide the tears that kept pooling in my eyes. The sentences carved themselves into my brain.  Whatever you think about the subject or plot of this book, there is no arguement that Chee’s ability as a wordsmith is first-rate.  For example:

Blue. Blue because it’s the color people turn in the dark. Because it’s the color of the sky, of the center of the flame, of a diamond hit by an X-ray. Blue is the knife edge of lightning. Blue is the color, a rose grower tells you, that a rose never quite reaches. (Edinburgh, page 191)

Edinburgh is scheduled for re-release as an ebook, at the very least, on February 2, 2016, the same day The Queen of the Night is also scheduled for release in hardcover, ebook, and so on.  I haven’t yet found information for a paperback re-release, but I do hope that is also in the works.  Edinburgh deserves a “bump” so it can find a new audience.

Dear FTC: I tracked down a used copy of this book.

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