Family history, missions, and an exploration of marriage and identity mingle together in former lawyer Pamela Binnings Ewen's second novel, THE MOON IN THE MANGO TREE.
Ewen sets her book mostly in Siam (now modern-day Thailand) in the Roaring Twenties and bases it on her grandmother, a suffragette and aspiring, talented opera singer who gives up everything to follow her new husband Harvey Perkins to the medical mission field.
Ewen, who tells us in the author's note that she relied on letters, journals, photographs and the stories she was told as a child to craft her narrative, has an obvious passion for her subject matter, which comes through strongly in her story. Unlike some mission-based novels, Ewen shows both the best and the worst of mission work. The rigid faith and unpleasantness of some of the Presbyterian missionaries and their hellfire and damnation ranting to the people of the Nan Valley erodes Barbara's faith (which is rather unfocused and fuzzy at the beginning of the narrative). And the beauty --- and savageness --- of nature is all around her. Ewen uses it to frame some of Barbara's questions about their mission in Siam. “Is it really possible to make a difference in this wild country?” muses Barbara after a man-eating tiger is killed.
Ewen (WALK BACK THE CAT) paints a rich picture of the scenery and culture of Siam during the early part of the 20th century --- from the spirit charms and antics of a pet monkey (which turn sinister when Barbara's first daughter is born), fevers that rage through villages and visits she makes to a local Buddhist monk, to her later relationship with a Siamese princess and an encounter with the sacred royal white elephants.
But on her first sojourn in Siam, Barbara is eaten up by resentment, anger and fear, and wants nothing more than to go home. She wonders if she could have succeeded as an opera singer, and her disappointment simmers. Soon, living conditions (including torrential rains, a frightening lizard called a “tokay” hanging from the ceiling, and giant worms and snakes, both real and in her imagination) lead Barbara to a nervous breakdown, and she and Harvey go home. But Harvey's passion is to be a medical missionary, and it's not long before they are back in Siam again.
Disappointed with the way her life is turning out, on her second trip to Siam, Barbara leads the proverbial life of empty pleasure: alcohol, smoking, glittering parties and heavy flirting. She soon takes the girls and leaves Harvey to make a last-ditch effort to see if her passion for opera still holds possibilities for her. Then, an old Jesuit missionary's words bring her back to faith. Although it may sound a little too pat, Ewen does a good job making her return to faith believable and authentic. Barbara's final sacrifice lends poignancy to the novel, but what holds it together is the way Ewen portrays the consistent love between Harvey and Barbara, even as they fail to understand each other at the deepest levels.
If there's a criticism anywhere, it is that the book, at 450-plus pages, is too long and could have benefited from some intensive pruning. This would have improved the pacing as well. But these are small troubles in an engaging novel. Book clubs will find plenty of discussable topics within these pages, from missionary ethics to gender roles to marital sacrifice and commitment. Readers who enjoy lovely description and cultural detail in their inspirational novels should appreciate this glimpse into one woman's life in the 1920s.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on May 1, 2008