Thursday, September 17, 2009

Seducing the Spirits by Louise Young

And, even in the midst of the Book Blogger Appreciation Week fun, we still have actual book blogging to do...

Seducing the Spirits by Louise Young: Jenny Dunfree is a graduate student exiled to the jungles of Panama to study harpy eagles after a disastrous affair with her advisor. She is told not to piss anyone off and to continue the research, but she is told very little about the Kuna, the native tribe whose favor she must curry to carry on the research. Jenny's disorientation is mirrored in the reader: we are all dropped into the world of the Kuna and witness the bizarre town meeting at which Jenny is interrogated in almost Kafkaesque fashion. Though Jenny is fluent in Spanish, she has no knowledge of the Kuna language, so an interpreter adds an additional layer of confusion. The Kuna refuse to address Jenny by her name (in fact, at one point in the middle of the book, I had to check the flap, as I had forgotten it). Jenny's lifeline is Pedro, a man educated in a mission school and fluent in English, who acts as her guide in the ways of the Kuna. Young's treatment of the Kuna is expertly balanced; the tension between traditional culture and creeping modernity is well-played. Jenny's loneliness leads her into friendships with several of the Kuna, while she rejects the only American, a belligerent missionary. She learns (and in some cases, embraces) Kuna customs and treats the natives with respect while resenting their denial of her name. Perhaps it is not surprising that Jenny seems a strangely detached character; she reflects the confusion of being caught between two cultures. At any rate, the supporting cast of Kuna bring more than enough passion and fervor to fuel the story.

Young's portrayal of a native culture through the eyes of an American would be impressive even if the Kuna were fictional. What makes this novel astounding is that the Kuna do exist; Young herself has acted as a cultural guide for the Kuna and uses her firsthand knowledge of a seldom-portrayed culture. Her prose is lush and sensuous as she captures the tedium of academic fieldwork, the challenges of being an outsider in a foreign culture, and the basic human need for friendship. Available November 1.


pippirose said...

This sounds like a fascinating book.
I will put it on my reading list.

cherdon said...

Your review makes me interested in checking out this book. Thanks so much.

Cheryl H