For once the promotional blurbs didn’t lie. I was on the edge of my seat and unwilling to put the book down. Without giving away key elements of the plot, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven chronicles the around-the-world-in-a-year ambitions of two recent college graduates in 1986. They begin their adventure in the People’s Republic of China which “had been open to independent backpackers for roughly ten minutes.” Without the comforts taken for granted in 2010 – cell phones, the internet, even the widespread use of English – they quickly find themselves in situations far beyond their capabilities.
Although this is a memoir, it reads as fluidly as a novel. Since the tale was recounted some twenty years after the fact, it is unlikely Gilman remembers the exact conversations that took place, but the narrator’s honesty quickly claims the reader’s trust. While nothing short of down-and-dirty detective work could corroborate some of her stories, I am willing to accept the anecdotes and revelation. They are presented raw and without glossing over the unpleasant details of the transition from the familiarity of America to the stark Eastern culture and lifestyle of China at that period of time.
Gilman’s prose didn’t cause me to devote pages to pithy and wise quotes from the book. However, she kept me turning the pages, and somewhere in between anecdotes slipped in revelations and discoveries about humanity. While stylistically flawless writing is a skill, the ability to cause the reader to stop and reflect without being pulled out of the story is a gift as well.
As the piece is a memoir, any judgment of the plot progression is frivolous. But Ms. Gilman certainly had a story that was worth telling. While I cannot promise the book will change your life, it is well worth the time to read. You will catch a glimpse of a world that has passed away and experiences that reflect certain aspects of humanity’s core, for better or worse.
(originally posted at http://www.read-all-over.net/nonficti...