Saturday, June 07, 2008

Book Review: In the Company of Whispers

In the Company of Whispers
by Sallie Lowenstein

The year is 2047, and Zeyya lives in a tiny, roach-infested apartment with her parents. It's a horrible way to live, and not as nice as their previous home, but it's safer: Quarantine hasn't hit this area yet. Throughout the Greater East Coast Metropolis, people are taken away by the police, leaving only yellow Quarantine tape to indicate that they ever existed. Zeyya has never known anyone to return from Quarantine.

When Zeyya's parents are taken in Quarantine, Zeyya goes to live with her 98-year-old grandmother in one of the last free-standing houses in the Metropolis. Shortly after Zeyya moves in, Granna also takes in a strange young man named Jonah, who appears lost and homeless. Jonah is covered with intricate tatoos, and claims to be able to "access" the memories of his ancestors. Is Jonah telling the truth or is it a form of madness? Whether he is crazy or lying, Zeyya doesn't trust Jonah.

As the summer progresses, Granna shares memories of her childhood in Burma nearly a century before. Those memories serve as a comfort and an escape from the pain and loss, but they also begin to draw the three of them together in a shared bond. Despite his strangeness, Granna and Zeyya find theselves drawn to Jonah. The past brings them together, but will they survive long enough to have a shared future?

In the Company of Whispers is an amazing, unique, and genre-bending book. At its core is a frightening and poignant dystopian story, but it's also part memoir and part a fascinating look at another culture. The chapters are interspersed with photographs, letters, and mementos of the author's own childhood in Burma, memories which are echoed in the story in Granna's memories. There are also short excerpts of essays about Burma, Burmese poetry, and quotes from famous Burmese people. The effect is a fascinating collage of Burmese life, and rather than distract you from the story, as you might expect, it serves to draw in the reader and make the story more real. This look at Burma and the Burmese people has turned out to be tragically timely, given the recent cyclone that devastated Myanmar (Burma) which has left over 100 thousand people dead or missing, and countless others homeless.

The writing is beautiful and almost poetic; I love the way that things like colors and music are woven into the fabric of the story. The story itself is quite exciting and almost heart-stopping at times, as you experience the fear and sadness of living in a world where people can be taken away suddenly and with no warning. The disease itself is never described, and indeed no one seems to no much about it, which adds to the feeling of the randomness of it all. There is a strong theme of family running through it all, and of the past which is so much a part of who we are.

It's also a coming of age story,; Zeyya grows up quickly as she deals with the pain and worries of the summer. By the end of the summer, her teenage interests and worries from the beginning of the book seem almost trivial, and her friends seem shallow and childish.

The book itself has a quality feel to it that will appeal to book lovers. The pages are printed on coated paper, and there is a lovely brown case and matching endpapers.

In the Company of Whispers will be officially published in September, but because of the current situation in Burma, the publisher, Lion Stone Books, is accepting prepublication orders on their web site. There's also an interesting Q&A with the author  (in PDF format).

Pages: 379
Total 48-hour book challenge pages read: 880
Total 48-hour book challenge books read: 3
Total time reading and blogging: 15 hours and 40 minutes


Jen Robinson said...

Now that sounds right up my alley, Sheila. Thanks! And thanks for taking so much time during the challenge to still do in-depth reviews.

Unknown said...

As I was reading it, I did think of you and thought it might be something you would like, Jen. I probably should write shorter reviews during the challenge - it can take me an hour or more to write a full review - but I just can't bring myself to do it. I've thought about writing short reviews and then going back and adding to them, but I'm afraid I'll never get back to it.

Jen Robinson said...

I think it's neat that we can really get to know each other's tastes through the blogs, Sheila. Thanks for thinking me. It's going in my next "reviews that made me want the book" feature, one of surprisingly few from the challenge. Or perhaps not surprising, because a lot of people didn't write detailed reviews...

I went through the same thought process - oh, I could write short reviews, and then add to them - but I just didn't think that would work well for me. I managed to get mine down to about 30 minutes each, on average, but that's as short as I was willing to go. And some of the comments have made me think "oh yes, I should have mentioned that." So I think I'll be back to spending more reviewing time on my next book. That's what we're here for, right? To talk about books.

Unknown said...

Yes, on all counts! I love being part of this global conversation about books.