Reviewed by Emma Crowley
In 1980s Burma, the British ambassador's son goes missing.
Discovered in the north of the country, Michael Atwood is in imminent danger, trapped between sides fighting a bitter civil war and with no way of getting back to Rangoon. His best hope of salvation is to trust Thuza, a ruby smuggler who offers to help him escape.Beautiful and deeply scarred, Thuza has spent her entire life in a frontier town between rebel and government forces, never choosing a side but trying to make a living from both. For Thuza, the ambassador's son is her ticket out of poverty. For Than, an ambitious military officer, exploiting those caught up in the war offers an opportunity for promotion and distinction.
But as all three learn to their cost, in this exotic, enigmatic and savage country, everyone has a price.
The Road to Rangoon is the second novel from Lucy Cruickshanks but the first book I have read by this author. What first attracted me to this book was the cover and title, I love books set in foreign countries which also have the historical element. I got that in abundance with this book although I will freely admit, for a large part I was confused as to the historical background to the country and how there were several factions fighting for control. To me it seemed as if the author presumed all her readers would have full knowledge and awareness as to the turbulent past Burma had experienced and was continuing to do so in the 1980's - the time in which this book was set. Yes older readers may have had a strong idea but for me I had a very very vague notion as to what had been going on and the struggles Thuza and her family had long endured. Normally I would be happy with a historical note at the end( which we got in great detail here) but with this book I felt it was needed at the beginning so the reader was conscious as to how we arrive in the time and place when we first encounter Thuza living in the Shan state in March 1974.
The prologue did give us a fascinating insight as to the political situation in the country. We learned a lot how the residents lived in a constant state of fear and terror and a struggle to survive and rear families. One cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to live in a valley in the depths of the Burmese countryside where land mines surround you and roads are stalked by bandits and rebels. Their aim being to gain control of Burma for themselves. Thuza is 11 when the event that shapes the book occurs and what powerful scenes we read of the destruction and decimation of a family. The scenes here were upsetting and harrowing and laid clear why Thuza becomes the person we read of throughout the remainder of the book and the reader can quite clearly see she is justified in the majority of her actions.
We flash forward 9 years later to Rangoon and the British embassy where Michael Atwood is visiting his father - the current British ambassador. We discover how Burma should be the richest country on earth considering its wealth of natural resources - oil, teak, fish, minerals and gemstones but the rebels have the country the other way. Burma is now a place where danger lurks around every corner and suspicion, fear, spies and threats are a daily occurrence making this country not the most easiest place to live in. For a 'foreigner' Michael puts himself in positions he should not be part of or witness to. OK he didn't stay behind closed doors in the embassy but rather wanted to integrate himself into the culture and the sights and sounds of a world miles apart from the only place he knows - Britain. The author does a remarkable job of describing the cultural differences between Burma and Britain. I felt I was there alongside Michael as he explored the streets and sights of Rangoon and met with his friend Sein. A major incident changes everything that Michael believes in and thought he knew about Burma and to seek retribution he embarks upon a perilous journey which eventually leads him to Thuza. Michael to me was selfish in some ways and quite oblivious in others, he put himself in constant danger through his reckless actions and in fact was more endangering others through what he went on to do. When he encounters Thuza he is convinced because his father has such an important job that he can fix everything and help her out of poverty and the hellish existence she endures every day. Overall he just seemed a bit beyond what was going on and although as I said he wants to make up for the incident that happened he didn't really give heed as to what he was facing into and was blissfully ignorant. He felt guilty and hopeless because of what had happened but to me he was doing more harm than good. I can't say I really liked Michael he just seemed to frustrate me and I couldn't warm to him at all.
Thuza is the stand out character in this book. She is as tough as nails and hardened from her past experiences and only has one goal in mind. She will do anything to achieve this and has spent years formulating and working out a plan which if it all comes together will see retribution for past events. Villagers hate her for her so called betrayal but to me she was a fascinating character who we could clearly see grow in strength and courage and above all else had family at the centre of her thoughts and ultimate goal. To outsiders she may seem bitter and strange but underneath it all she is very complex and her brain is always on the go trying to work out just how can she fix the past despite it knocking on her door everyday. Someone so young should not have to grow up and smuggle rubies just to exist. I realise her brother wanted to go and fight for freedom and independence but he shouldn't have left Thuza alone forcing her into the most awful of acts when she should be able to enjoy being a young woman(well as much as one could in Burma despite opression).
Another character the book focus on is Than – a police officer. For endless pages I questioned why was he in this book, what role had he to play bar being law enforcement? He was boring to read about and I found his ramblings inconsequential but I should have known the author knew what she was doing and that every character be they minor or major had a role to play. The blurb states Than is an ambitious military officer yet to me he wanted everyone else to do the dirty work and then he would step in and take the credit and earn promotion. In my opinion he was weak and feeble and in the end he paid the ultimate sacrifice for his so called ambition and forwardness. One which sees him realise he is only a small token in the game and there are far more major players at work.Although part of me did have a tiny shred of sympathy for what happens to him. As all three major characters collide and events finally unfold my interest finally started to appear but in this case perhaps a little too late for me to fully absorb and become gripped in the overall storyline.
This book demands all of your attention whilst you read through the story. It's not one that you can pick up every now and then as it requires every bit of concentration so as to follow what is going on and as I said I did become confused. The action really doesn't pick up until around the 70% mark and I was close to giving up but the final 30% made up for the slow pace that had come before. I had hoped for more action spaced throughout the book and when it did eventually get going there were so many twists and turns and shocking revelations coming out of nowhere that yet again I could barely keep up. My heart broke at what unfolds as I was really hoping for one character to get a different ending but I suppose it's better that books don't always confirm to the norm. I'm a huge fan of historical fiction and would say this is a good interesting read but it didn't keep me hooked from beginning to end turning the pages rapidly. It did provide me with an insight into a time and place that I had not much awareness or interest in before and for that I am grateful. The Road to Rangoon is worth reading but overall I don't think this one was one of the best reads for me this year.
Many thanks to Quercus for a copy of The Road to Rangoon to review via NetGalley and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.