Wade's Reviews > Birds of Paradise Lost

Birds of Paradise Lost by Andrew Lam
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Mar 03, 13

Read in March, 2013

Andrew Lam, one of my favorite writers, has often demonstrated his journalist's ability to see the broad themes in the most particular of situations. He is one of the few writers I've read who can articulate the spaces that straddle cultures of all kinds, firmly planted in multiple and conflicting perspectives. This time, he turns to fiction, where he is able to create the people and worlds instead of reporting them to us.

I have said before that in a very small way, I relate to Mr. Lam's writing as a Midwestern transplant on the West coast with my own love-hate relationship with my rural culture of origin and my new urban California life. And I see Lam's themes written broadly in the experiences of my husband's family - political asylees from Kenya. That's the magic of his writing, given an extra dimension in this book by the array of characters he brings to life.

Andrew Lam's characters are most often those who cross lines, usually back and forth several times, and represent the complicated nature of identity, belonging, translation, and memory. His characters have vivid interior landscapes, and as a writer who clearly loves language, Lam's gift is to describe the movements of feelings that can't even be articulated with language. He describes this beautifully in a story about a 7th grader who finds an interior reserve of bravery and brilliance when he is assigned to befriend a recent immigrant who barely speaks English. And again, Lam describes it in the story of a successful, wealthy couple who may or may not have left behind the past when they happen upon an estate sale.

The role of grief and missed opportunities, what is said & unsaid, also threads significantly through the stories. Sometimes the results are expected - in several stories of childhood actions (often motivated by the desire to fit in) that lead to regret - and other times unexpected ways - when a restaurant owner's new customer is the man whom she saw kill her husband in Vietnam. And of course there is family, the complicated knot of expectations and belonging that shift significantly between countries, cultures, and generations. The children, mostly sons, who embarrass their fathers through public disagreement and private rebellion. The formerly wealthy elites of Vietnam who scrape by in their new, bewildering adopted country - or the formerly poor farmers who passed through refugee camps and become successful in their new, bewildering adopted country.

There are a few stories that seem to strike awkwardly against Lam's smooth, rich storytelling style - particularly when he adopts a teenage vernacular - yet there is something even in those stories where you can read between the lines of the awkward tone and see the themes of fitting in, striving for acceptance, and desperately trying to erase differences. Andrew Lam is at his absolute best when he juxtaposes and overlaps worlds in surprising ways: Hunger, The Palmist, and (my favorite) Love Leather.

I am pleased to see Andrew Lam branching out more fully into fiction, and I look forward to more of his writing. Even when he is writing about people who are very different in some ways, you will probably recognize yourself in at least a few of his stories - if you have ever tried to fit in but fell short; if you have ever moved far away from home but found that you couldn't completely loosen the moorings of family; if you have ever felt haunted by something or someone from your past.
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