Miss Burma

This novel by Charmaine Craig tells the story of the history of Burma (now Myanmar) in the 20th century—from the 1930s to the 1960s—from the perspective of one family. Benny was born in the Jewish quarter in Rangoon but spent part of his childhood in India. On his return to Rangoon as an adult in 1938, he began working for a rice trading company. The next year, he met Khin, a Karen woman working as a nanny. Soon, despite their lack of a shared language, they married. The book follows their marriage through the coming decades, as they have children, are separated by war, and come together again in a pattern that repeats over the year.

Before reading this, I knew nothing about the Karen people and their fight for equality, freedom, participation in the government as colonial rule ended in Burma. I can’t say that I could give a clear history of it now, but what’s important to the book, which is based on the lives of the author’s own family, is the intersection between the personal and political.

Although born Jewish, Benny decides to consider himself Karen, and he has enough wealth and power to be able to work to advance their cause. But that work puts him in danger. There are times when the family is put on the run, he is imprisoned and tortured, and Khin has to leave her children to ensure both her and their survival. The circumstances put a strain on their marriage, and Khin and Benny sometimes find comfort in other beds.

Eventually, the story moves to the next generation, as their oldest child, Louisa, becomes part of the effort to get Benny out of prison and to raise the Karen people’s status and political capital by becoming the face of the people. In becoming the Miss Burma of the book’s title, Louise is attempting (at her mother’s behest) to lift up her own people, but she becomes a tool for the tabloids and the government.

The book covers a lot of ground, as political figures and freedom fighters rise and fall and as one generation passes to the next. It’s a good story, but perhaps too much for one novel. The years sometimes sweep by so quickly—I wanted more time to breathe. I wonder if it would have been better as two books, with one focused on Benny and Khin and another on Louise. The book ends suddenly, and it’s obvious that there’s more to tell about Louise. But the story of Benny and Khin would have benefited, too, from a little more time. I wanted to know them as a couple, to see them forming a connection and learning to love each other before the war ripped them apart.

Overall, however, this book is pretty good. I’m always glad to read about places and histories I’m not familiar with. It might not make me incredibly knowledgeable, but it does make me just a little less ignorant. When I hear about Myanmar on the news, I have just a little more context for the stories.

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4 Responses to Miss Burma

  1. Jenny says:

    You might be interested in reading Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace, for a different perspective on a lot of the same history. I found it really engaging — so wonderfully written (as you can imagine) and the characters were marvelous. It has stayed with me.

  2. Sounds interesting. Thanks for your thoughts.

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