ON THE FRONT COVER of Aimee Liu’s Glorious Boy there is a palm-lined cove under a twilight sky. Unspoiled by modernity, this looks like island escapism, with no indication this is a story about wartime. Countless stories have already been told and retold about World War II, but here the setting is unusual — a colonial outpost in the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal during World War II. Still, the most captivating narrative within it could be set in any time or any place.
Claire Durant, an aspiring anthropologist, and her husband Shep, a British physician, head to the archipelago in 1937. She will be conducting fieldwork among the island’s indigenous peoples; Shep will be working as a civil surgeon while collecting botanical specimens. They are to live in a penal colony, the capital Port Blair. The narrative is interspersed with field notes, and Claire’s letters to parents, and to the real-life anthropologist Ruth Benedict. At its heart, this is a story about a family’s lack of control in the face of global crisis and motherhood, a lack of control that challenges colonial mindsets.
When Japanese forces threaten the archipelago, Claire and her family must evacuate the island and leave for Calcutta. But amid the chaos of wartime, Claire and Shep can’t find their four-year old son, Ty. Shep returns to the island with Naila, a local girl, to find him. This separation alters each family member’s destiny.
Liu has paid close attention to historical accuracy, from the languages spoken in the regions to newspaper headlines. Claire fancies herself a Margaret Mead, we’re told, and studies the work from her predecessor, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown. With historical fiction, there’s a thin line between evoking a past the reader can inhabit and describing it as a tour guide might. In its desire to get the facts right, the story sometimes falters, its expositional historical details taking us away from the characters’ subjective experience. But the novel speaks to something larger than the moment.
Stories are most impactful when we get inside the minds and hearts of our characters. As Hilary Mantel, author of the Cromwell trilogy, puts it in her rules for writers: “Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that’s the point to step back and fill in the details of their world.” This is where Glorious Boy triumphs. The narrative begins at a point of change. Claire and Shep move to another country as a World War breaks out. Claire is here to become an “inconspicuous observer.” “Become invisible” is the advice given to her by eminent anthropologist Ruth Benedict. But there is a sense that Claire is here not just for career advancement; she wants to forget herself, become truly invisible.
When the Andaman Islands first come into view, Claire imagines it “as a creature intent on driving the slender white snake of the beach back into the ocean.” She wants to leave the port and penal colony where history is unfolding and return to the “dense and lofty forests,” home to “the island’s true and rightful inhabitants.” Her desire to meet these people “would be like entering a time capsule.” She wants to escape history and return to a land she imagines this one to be, where the “primeval heat” seems to “pulse from shore to shore.” The island, for Claire, is a symbol of a past longed for and idealized. Initially, she sees this archipelago as a blank canvas onto which she can project her desire to return to an Edenic pre-history.
The narrative takes place against this backdrop: a paradisiacal island with its banyan groves, palm-lined coves, and call of cicadas. There are wild orchids, and in the air the scents of cardamom, mace, and cinnamon. Though these could be considered island tropes, they are deeply present in our collective unconscious — the novel does its job in evoking a sense of wanderlust, reminiscent of work by Rudyard Kipling and R. M. Ballantyne, though more modern than the latter in particular, which today seems dated.
Claire’s preconceived romanticism is put into question. When she looks for differences among the islanders, she finds similarities between individuals and her own family. When she sees the harbor of Port Blair come into view, she regards it as “a miniature replica of a world she thought she’d left behind.” Later she notes,
They had entered a time capsule by leaving almost everything familiar behind and discovered a reality so strange and new yet ancient that met made every nerve in her body quiver. Except, of course, that they hadn’t actually discovered anything. The Biya had been living here all along. She and Shep were simply catching up.
Through seeing herself in the other, she questions the ethics of this mode of fieldwork, likening it to voyeurism. Much of her fieldwork instead results in her revising outdated perspectives about the islands. Claire observes: “Far from the hostile glares of Radcliffe-Brown’s Andamanese, Imulu’s face bloomed with good-natured derision.”
Claire sees herself in the world and compares her situation to that of others, however unfamiliar and distant they might at first seem. Indeed, Claire sees others and herself through the lens of a social scientist. She is also prone to self-judgment and self-analysis, recognizing she’d gone to the Andaman Islands “mistaking youthful ambition as a virtue,” realizing that “ambition is worthless unless it’s rooted in human understanding.” She wonders why she thought herself qualified to undertake to communicate with the indigenous peoples she encountered.
Claire is ahead of her time in many of her observations. Newly arrived in a penal colony, she finds fault with the “British overlords” and compares their atrocities to the Spanish genocide of indigenous people in the Americas. In some places, her inner monologue feels too didactic. Yet Claire’s critique of past malpractices in ethnography and colonial atrocities — especially when paired with her own family’s inability to help in the face of powers greater than them — challenges the white savior narrative. Because, in the end, what has she to offer this community?
While some moments overwhelm with detail, at its most effective, Glorious Boy transcends history and geography and gets to the heart of things. In the everyday banality of motherhood and parenthood — from swimming lessons to toddler tantrums and the pains of breastfeeding — Liu invites the reader to bridge the gap between the present and the past, between ourselves and others. We witness Claire’s anxieties as a mother and as a woman prone to self-doubt. On the year of her arrival, she gives birth to a baby boy, Ty. We witness her contractions during labor and her intrusive thoughts. She can’t help but imagine things going wrong.
Later we see the shadow of her nature, the thoughts she will never speak, her maternal jealousy toward Naila, the little girl who they’ve hired as Ty’s nanny, who quickly forms a bond with Claire’s son. At the same time, Claire feels Ty is more remote, her encounters with him “like fighting a cornered animal.” In letters to Ruth Benedict, Claire articulates her concerns about Ty’s late speech development. Shep, too, has anxieties about parenthood. He doesn’t want to be like his father.
Something about her present moment deeply troubles — or bores — Claire. She wants to turn back time. Ultimately, she manages not by studying the island’s indigenous community, but by looking to children. Witnessing Naila’s intuitive nature and her relationship with Ty, Claire notes, “it was as if the children had their own spirit language.” And then, of course, there is Ty, her “glorious boy.” Perhaps, as with her vocation, it’s this childlike state, the wonder and innocence that comes with it, to which Claire longs to return.
Elizabeth Sulis Kim is a London-based writer. Her work has been featured in publications such as the Guardian, Oh Comely, TANK, The Millions, the New Orleans Review, Monstrous Regiment Literary Magazine, and The Aleph Press (forthcoming).