Jess's Reviews > Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman
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's review
Aug 31, 2009

really liked it
Read in August, 2009

Aside from reading books, one of my favorite things to do is travel. I could spend most of my time jumping on planes and border hopping, and I would be perfectly content with that. To be honest, I would absolutely love to take a few months and just travel around, go and see the world, and do everything I haven’t had the chance to yet do.

Susie Jane Gilman does just that, and in 1986, when most borders were closed to the U.S. during the Cold War. Information was scarce and travel was truly an adventure, without the same luxuries we’re exposed to today.

Susie and her friend Claire, freshly minted graduates of Brown University, decide to embark on a world-wide tour, starting with the People’s Republic of China. As the book unfolds, it becomes clear just how little Claire and Susie really do know each other: Claire is a tall blonde from New England with a family that sails and has money. Susie is a Jewish girl from Manhattan who works hard for her money and is used to noise, verbosity, and tall buildings. However, when they both disembark the plane in Hong Kong, they realize they are both strangers in a strange land. While Susie struggles to adapt to a culture that is both welcoming and alienating, Claire becomes more and more unhinged.

When the trip moves almost overnight from seeing the Great Wall of China for Susie’s 22nd birthday to Claire’s emergency trip to a rural Chinese hospital, it is then that the reader begins to suspect something darker happening, guised in the form of physical illness. As Gilman writes about trying to take care of a friend who hears voices and is convinced she is being followed, the reader’s sympathy is engaged by the details she provides about her own struggles to adapt. One almost wants to shout at Claire to stop doing whatever she’s doing and let Susie enjoy herself. It is only until later that it becomes remarkably clear how mentally ill Claire has become.

One admirable effort on Gilman’s part is her accommodation to try to understand Claire’s point of view. Whenever Gilman writes about her anger with Claire’s mood swings, she pauses to consider what Claire might have been thinking at the same time. There is a sense of witsfulness there, almost guilt, as though Gilman wishes she could have done something that would have made it all better. By the end of the story, it’s clear there is nothing anyone could have done, but one still feel Gilman’s sense of regret. Yet she still somehow manages to incorporate a sense of confusion, frustration, and anger with Claire and with China throughout the book, subtly reminding the reader of how great the language and cultural barriers were in 1986.

Ironically, though I was anticipating a book that would detail all of Claire and Susie’s excellent adventures, it wasn’t until Claire began acting out that I really became absorbed with Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. Juxtaposed with the culture shock both girls experience, it is hard to distinguish how much of it is stems from Claire’s frustration with the lack of access she was used to as a privileged upper class white female and how much was her descent into illness. The scene that stands out and will continue to stand out for me is when Claire disappears in China for a day and completely breaks down.

When it is finally revealed what Claire had done and where she had gone, Gilman writes with so much passion and empathy and confusion and concern that it is impossible for all those feelings to not transfer to the reader as well. I felt as though I was in the valley with Claire, watching her wade into the river, less and less coherent and more and more paranoid, and my senses were completely engaged. I wanted to know what was going to happen to Claire, if she was purposely trying to kill herself or if she had become so unhinged that she didn’t even know what she was doing anymore. Claire in her own right becomes a compelling character, almost as though she were a work of fiction rather than flesh and blood. Finding out how Susie reacts and what happens to Claire became imperative and I simply could not put the book down.

When I picked up Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, I anticipated a book that would provide much of the same wit and humor that Gilman’s other books do, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, and Kiss My Tiara. What I didn’t expect was the note of seriousness her book would take on and how entrancing her writing would be. Granted, there were some moments that aspired to be more literary and failed, but there were so many others that so firmly entrenched me in the fields and mountains of China, that it far outweighed the few overwritten sentences.

I put the book down, feeling as though I too needed to travel to China, to work in the fields along rice workers, and befriend people I would never speak to normally, except having the commonality of being an explorer is what links us. Needless to say, this work of nonfiction more than holds its own in the canon of travel literature. It simultaneously managed to remind me of all the uncertainty of travel while rekindling all the adventure and wonder and magic.
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