Edinburgh, by Alexander Chee

Picador, 2002

Amazon.com: Edinburgh (9780544916128): Chee, Alexander: Books

I wasn’t sure that I wanted to write this review because I wasn’t sure I had the right words—or the right experiences—to do so. Edinburgh follows a gay Korean American boy growing up in Maine, Aphias Zhe (Fee), as he experiences sexual abuse at twelve years old and how he processes the trauma that follows him into the subsequent stages of his life. It wasn’t just the fact that I’m not a gay Korean American boy that made me hesitate to write about Edinburgh. This is also a case of my being intimidated by just how good this book is. But two weeks after reading, I am returning to write this review because I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how deeply this novel resonated with me. And that has led me to consider what it is about this very specific story that feels so relatable.

I do not by any means want to sound like I am comparing my definitively trauma-free life to that of the characters of Edinburgh. But the way Chee writes about childhood, teenage, and young adult anger, depression, and angst is so visceral that I couldn’t help but be reminded of the ways that I felt at those ages. The following is one example that stopped me in my tracks: “Sometimes the scattered thoughts of their deaths run like a ragged red seam of fire inside me and I burn from the inside out, like a lightning-struck tree: the outside whole, the inside, that carried the lightnings charge, a coal. At other times, I feel empty, transparent, a child of the wind. Touching nothing, nothing touching me. And alternating between these states, with no warning as to when one will turn into the other.” And later, when Fee is deeply depressed and suicidal in college, Chee describes it as, “The year a long shadow I walked through.”

Some of my favorite moments in Edinburgh were Fee’s interactions and changing relationship with his Korean grandparents who had immigrated to the US to live with their family in Maine. You see Fee’s understanding of his grandparents grow and develop as he gets older. This moment from early in the novel where Fee is musing about his grandmother says so much with so little: “She sighed, and it sounded like a sigh that had been learned under a different sorrow.” This is such a complex concept for a pre-teen to grasp—that adults have lived lives outside of the reality in which they presently reside. And the way this is written shows how Fee was just beginning to understand that there were probably a lot of things he didn’t know about his grandparents.

One moment that really struck me as demonstrating Fee’s growth is an offhand comment he makes about a teenage mother in his high school: “She had always been, I recalled, a fiercely silent girl, pretty and small. Now she seems a giant. I see her in the school, nonchalant. Widowed, a mother, a high school senior. Our lives, I decide, watching her, are tiny beside hers.” Chee fills even the small, in-between moments of Fee’s adolescence with these deeply perceptive thoughts.

One of the ideas that stuck with me coming out of this novel was a reminder to take kids seriously; to take teenagers seriously. And the flip side of that being, adults don’t always have a firmer grasp on themselves that kids do. The things that happen to us stick with us, and often, we simply get better at forgetting. Chee’s words sum this up better than I ever could: “Do you remember what it was like, to be young? You do. Was there any innocence there? No. Things were exactly what they looked like. If anyone tries for innocence, it’s the adult, moving forward, forgetting.”

Links: goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

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