Rosie’s Review Team #RBRT The Last Gods Of Indochine by Samuel Ferrer #TuesdayBookBlog @shaolinfez

Today’s second team review is from Olga, she blogs here http://www.authortranslatorolga.com

#RBRT Review Team

Olga has been reading The Last Gods Of Indochine by Samuel Ferrer

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My review: A beautifully written historical fiction novel about the Khmer Empire exploring fate, colonialism, spirituality and trauma.

Thanks to the author and to Rosie from Rosie’s Book Review Team for offering me the opportunity to review this novel.

I do not know much about Indochine or present day Cambodia, where this story is set, other than vague information gathered from movies, mostly about the war. Recently, I have discovered that reading historical fiction is a great way to learn (or at least wet one’s appetite) about places and historical periods one is not familiar with but feels curious about, in an engaging and entertaining way. This novel is a good example of this, even though the author clarifies at the end that he has taken many liberties with the historical figures and also with the period reflected. (I recommend that readers don’t skip the notes as they are helpful in sorting fancy from fact and also offer up-to-date information on current knowledge about the Khmer Empire and the reasons for its demise).

The story is narrated in the third person and, after an introduction describing the last moments of Henry Mouhot, a French explorer known for ‘discovering’ the lost civilisation of Angkor Wat (that was never lost and had already been known to Westerners, but he popularised with his journals), alternates chapters from the point of view of Jacqueline Mouhot, Henry’s granddaughter and Paaku, the Lotus Born. Jacquie is a fictional character and we meet her in 1921, shortly after WWI. She had helped at a field hospital in the Somme and we realise she is severely traumatised by an incident that took place while she was there. She clearly shows signs of PTSD but we get to learn more details of what happened and how it relates to the story later, although we know it was bad enough for her to be removed from her posting.

Her story is interspersed with that of Paaku the Lotus Born, another fictional character, a young man living in XIIIc Khmer Empire, whose identity and story seem to be the stuff of myths and legend. He does not know his true origin, as he is an orphan brought up by a Vishnu monk, and he seems to have been chosen (although by whom and what for is not immediately evident) and might have special healing powers.

At first, I felt it easier to identify with Jacquie’s story, as her point of view as a woman trying to get by in a man’s world at such a time, and her state of mind were more familiar to me (even if she is not always the most sympathetic of characters, complaining about minor things, like the lack of comfort of some parts of the trip, and she appears quite naïve as to what her experience travelling to Asia might mean). But Paaku’s story is so beautifully told and shares such unique world-views and experiences that it’s impossible not to become enchanted at first, and later increasingly worried as to what his fate might be. The more we read, the more we’re struck by the links and connections between the two characters, and a number of possible explanations are offered during the novel as to why this should be so, although the final twist is not easy to guess (I only realised what might be behind the story very close to the ending but I won’t spoil it). The story is complex and the changes in historical period, language style (fragments of Mouhot’s true diaries are included in the novel as his fictional granddaughter reads them) and character’s point of view demand attention and close reading, but the results are very rewarding. At first, the changes in point of view might be somewhat frustrating if the readers identify more with one of the stories than with the other but the reason for the choice of writing form becomes evident and in the end and it suits the subject perfectly.

The language and descriptions of places, historical and social periods and lifestyles of both eras are poetic and evocative, and despite the third person narrative we get inside the characters’ heads and body and, thanks to the vivid writing style, experience their lives fully with our five senses. The novel explores many themes: mysticism, spiritual questions, colonialism, the different roles of men and women, family legacy, PTSD, fate and destiny, romance and there is much to keep us thinking, while our  brains try to connect the stories at the same time as engaging with the language at a sensual level.

It might be something purely personal, but for me, one of the only things I wasn’t truly convinced about was the love story. Other than being there, having similar interests regarding the story of the area, and being a man and a woman, there seems to be little that connects them other than a romantic subplot in the novel, although it works as a way to humanise Jacquie, make her more vulnerable and it also facilitates the ending.

Both of the stories narrated in this novel are stories of discovery of spiritual truths, fate, friendship, love, the price to pay for one’s beliefs, fear and eventual peace. I am not at all surprised by the book’s nomination for the Man Asia Literary Prize. This is a beautifully written book about places and historical periods that captures readers’ imaginations and allow the mind to fly.

Book Description

Jacquie Mouhot and Paaku the Lotus-Born are divided by six centuries but linked by a common curse. In medieval Cambodia, Paaku is an orphan whose community believes he may be a reluctant incarnation of a god, causing sectarian turmoil for the kingdom’s leaders. Meanwhile, in 1921, Jacquie follows the footsteps of her grandfather, a famous explorer, to Indochina, where she becomes immersed in the tragedy of Paaku’s history: a story simultaneously unfolding in the intertwined present and past, a story in which she still has a vital role to play.

About the author

Samuel Ferrer

Born in California, Samuel Ferrer has lived in South East Asia since 2002, writing “The Last Gods of Indochine” in the bars of Bangkok, Saigon, Hanoi, the cafes of Laos, in the mountains of Sapa, and on location throughout Cambodia. Inspired by the real life of explorer, Henri Mouhot (1826-1881), this historical fiction novel centers around Mouhot’s fictitious granddaughter and uses excerpts from the journal that made Mouhot famous after his death in the jungles of Laos, published posthumously in 1863.

Ferrer is a professional double bassist and member of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as the band-leader and songwriter for Hong Kong’s largest original band, Shaolin Fez. He holds degrees from Yale and the University of Southern California, and as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, spent a year in Paris in between degrees. With the “The Last Gods of Indochine”, Ferrer became the only non-Asian to have ever been nominated for Asia’s most prestigious literary award, The Man Asian Literary Prize (“The Booker of Asia”).

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Rosie’s Review Team #RBRT The Last Gods Of Indochine by Sam Ferrer @shaolinfez #SundayBlogShare

Today’s team review is from E.L Lindley, she blogs here http://lindleyreviews.blogspot.co.uk/

#RBRT Review Team

E.L has been reading The Last Gods Of Indochine by Samuel Ferrer

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The Last Gods of Indochine by Samuel Ferrer is an ambitious, complex novel which switches between 1294, 1861 and 1921, highlighting the changes taking place in Indochina. It raises important questions about religion and the impact it has on humanity.

The novel begins in 1861 with the death of explorer Henri Mouhot from Malaria whilst travelling in Indochina. In 1921, his granddaughter Jacquie follows in his footsteps, inspired by his journal which was posthumously published. Jacquie is invited by a group of archaeologists under the title of the EFEO to join them in Cambodia to revisit her grandfather’s findings.

Jacquie is a strange character who is compelled to travel whilst at the same time retaining her sense of British imperialism. Other cultures represent “disorder” and she resents the fact that not everyone she meets speaks English. We learn that during the First World War Jacquie volunteered with the Red Cross and was sent to the front line where she subsequently suffered from shell shock from which she hasn’t entirely recovered.

The whole novel is steeped in mysticism and both Henri and Jacquie experience haunting dreams often featuring a large bird, a monkey and a sea of milk. As Jacquie gets nearer to Indochina, her dreams change and she begins to feel, “as if the story of another has found me.” Tension is intensified for the reader as Ferrer uses foreshadowing when, in addition to the dreams; Jacquie visits a fortune teller, to prepare us for the horrors to come.

The structure of the novel is such that we see Indochina’s history from the 13th century onwards. Ferrer juxtaposes Henri’s journal with that of Jacquie to highlight the similarities and differences in both characters. He also introduces the character of Paaku, a young boy who inhabited the Khmer Empire in 1294. Imperialism is everywhere in Jacquie’s story with the wealth of the Europeans at odds with the poverty of the indigenous people. The way travel had become more accessible by 1921 is also depicted in the way it takes Jacquie 3 weeks to reach her destination whereas it took Henri more than 6 months.

For me the most interesting parts of the novel are the ones which feature Paaku. He is part of a society where the king and religion are intertwined and the power of both reigns supreme. Paaku falls victim to religion when he is thought to have performed a miracle and so is hailed as the incarnation of the Hindu God, Vishnu. As different religions coexist it is a delicate balance as to which one will have the most power as decreed by the king and consequently monstrous acts of inhumanity are carried out supposedly in the name of the various gods.

Ferrer uses his novel to explore the idea of religion and one of the central themes of the story is reincarnation. As Jacquie arrives in Cambodia she is shown bas reliefs which depict the history of the Khmer Empire and she finds herself knowing the stories that the images represent. In contrast to Jacquie’s increasing belief in reincarnation, her travelling companion Victor, a Russian émigré, is an atheist who believes firmly in science. The religion of the Khmer Empire is entrenched in mysticism and superstition.

The complexity of the novel lies in the way it is structured and Ferrer’s writing skills are very much in evidence in the way he retains full control over the time shifts and supernatural visions. He manages to cleverly bring all the strands of the story together in a way that is both surprising and exciting for the reader. The descriptive writing that Ferrer employs is also noteworthy as it evokes a vivid impression of Indochina, the smells, colours and chaos of a different culture are all brought to life through Jacquie’s perspective.

The Last Gods of Indochine is not an easy read and requires a lot of focus but it is well worth the effort as the story is both engrossing and thought provoking. If you’re looking for something a little bit different and more demanding than a pot boiler then I suggest you give it a try.

Book Description

Jacquie Mouhot and Paaku the Lotus-Born are divided by six centuries but linked by a common curse. In medieval Cambodia, Paaku is an orphan whose community believes he may be a reluctant incarnation of a god, causing sectarian turmoil for the kingdom’s leaders. Meanwhile, in 1921, Jacquie follows the footsteps of her grandfather, a famous explorer, to Indochina, where she becomes immersed in the tragedy of Paaku’s history: a story simultaneously unfolding in the intertwined present and past, a story in which she still has a vital role to play. 

About the author

Samuel Ferrer

Born in California, Samuel Ferrer has lived in South East Asia since 2002, writing “The Last Gods of Indochine” in the bars of Bangkok, Saigon, Hanoi, the cafes of Laos, in the mountains of Sapa, and on location throughout Cambodia. Inspired by the real life of explorer, Henri Mouhot (1826-1881), this historical fiction novel centers around Mouhot’s fictitious granddaughter and uses excerpts from the journal that made Mouhot famous after his death in the jungles of Laos, published posthumously in 1863.

Ferrer is a professional double bassist and member of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as the band-leader and songwriter for Hong Kong’s largest original band, Shaolin Fez. He holds degrees from Yale and the University of Southern California, and as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, spent a year in Paris in between degrees. With the “The Last Gods of Indochine”, Ferrer became the only non-Asian to have ever been nominated for Asia’s most prestigious literary award, The Man Asian Literary Prize (“The Booker of Asia”).

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