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Edinburgh by Alexander Chee
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Edinburgh (2001)

by Alexander Chee

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‘This is a fox story. Of how a fox can be a boy. And so it is also the story of a fire.’

First published in 2001 in the US, we now have a UK edition released in 2018. This was Alexander Chee’s first novel and – wow, it is stunning. Very nearly 5 stars, and very nearly the best book I have read this year (why have I not come across this book before??). Very nearly, but not quite – for reasons below.

But first – this is not a cheery read, nor is it an easy read. Chee takes Korean and classical myths and blends them with ideas of burying and being underground (metaphors, I think, for the abuse victims and how they can or cannot cope with memories of the past). The subject matter is tough: child abuse and the struggle to cope, to live with the trauma. There are at least 2 suicides, and the central character Aphias Zhe (known as ‘Fee’) also has to deal with his own thoughts and attempts. The first part of the novel deals with the choirmaster and the boys who suffer the abuse, while the following parts move on and we see Fee grow older and struggle with his own life being a gay man living not only with the abuse he suffered, but also with guilt. Guilt for not speaking out, and guilt for the death of his one true love Peter. There is a nice switch in the narrative as we see the same events from the point of view of two different characters, Fee and Warden, as the book drives towards a terrible and violent climax.

The one quibble I have with the book, and the reason it doesn’t quite hit 5 stars for me, is the too-neat coincidence that Fee ends up teaching at the same school as the son of the man who abused him, and that fact that the boy (Warden) is a spitting image of Peter who had been Fee’s best friend and object of his unrequited love. I understand how and why Chee did this for reasons of plotting – and maybe, as this feels in part like a semi-autobiographical novel as many first novels seem to be, there is an element of fact in this – but it just felt a little too contrived for me to be totally accepting of this development.

However, I can live with that minor distraction. This is the kind of book that I had to read in stages, taking a break at the end of each section to walk away. Partly because of the subject matter, but mainly because Chee’s prose is extraordinary. He writes sentences that suck the breath out of you, leaving you stunned in awe at the image, the feeling, the sheer heartbreaking emotion in the words. The book reminded me of a blend of Scott Heim’s ‘Mysterious Skin’ and the very best of Alan Hollinghurst, and like Hollinghurst Chee’s lyricism is simply dazzling. The last few pages, which draw together all the strands of myths and leave the main characters changed forever, just left me a wreck! There are no easy solutions, no neat tying-up of the past, no escaping the past. There is, perhaps, hope.

Yes, this book may not be for some people, and I totally get that. But this is a work of lyrical power and emotional force that will stay with me for some time. I cannot recommend it enough.
( )
  Alan.M | Apr 16, 2019 |
Really more like a 4.5 but rounding up. So poetic, never saying something outright but making it clear nevertheless. Beautiful. ( )
  Katie_Roscher | Jan 18, 2019 |
Just stunning - one of those books where every line feels deliberate and purposeful. ( )
  KLmesoftly | Nov 18, 2018 |
Wow.... a book and story with writing that made me feel as if I were a voyeur who was sung to. I was taken by the beautiful language...poetic, emotion-stoked, pleading and lifting. Just finished the last word and now I pause in awe and in joy of its power and song. ( )
1 vote ming.l | Mar 31, 2013 |
I was really moved by the main character's story and the palpable way Fee's guilt and grief - for being gay, for surviving - colors his view of the terrible events that surround him, including the sexual abuse of other boys and the suicide of his best friend. ( )
1 vote sbecon | Apr 18, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312305036, Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:31 -0400)

"Fee, a Korean-American child growing up in Maine, inhabits a fantasy world of spirits and heroes. Gifted with a beautiful soprano voice, Fee sings in a professional boys' choir. When the choir director acts out his pedophilic urges on the boys in the choir, Fee is unable to save himself, his first love, Peter, or his friends - complicit within a silence both inexplicable and growing as each boy succumbs to the molestation. His friendship with Peter deteriorates under the pressures of this mutual silent shame, leaving a hole within him that he cannot fill." "The choir director is arrested and imprisoned for his crimes, but the damage he inflicted remains: Peter self-immolates, another shoots himself in the head. Fee wanders through college, loving men he won't have sex with and having sex with men he doesn't love, and attempts suicide himself. He survives, and, now an adult, moves with his lover Bridey back to Maine, taking a job teaching art at a private boarding school. But when he meets a student named Warden - the choir director's son who knows nothing of his father's heinous crimes - Fee, lost in the way Warden resembles Peter, has no choice but to confront the demons and ghosts of his brutal past."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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