|Undress Me In the Temple of Heaven|
"Truth is stranger than fiction" - I've often heard that phrase.
And I found it applies to the travel memoir, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, the story told by Susan Jane Gilman of her trip to China with a university friend Claire, some 23 years after it happened. Trying to figure out what caused the series of events in the book - the two 21-year old girls, or China itself - is not quite easy. Maybe it was the interaction of the two that was the key, or maybe it was that China in the mid-1980s was just a catalyst that would change these two girls in such different and dramatic ways.
The author has no easy answers herself. As it was, it took her over 20 years to write about it. Changing the name and identity of her travel companion, Claire, made it easier, too.
The book is not all serious - there are amusing parts, and the travel sections on Hong Kong, Shanghai, Dailin, Beijin, Guilin, and other areas of China are informative. I had the impression that the author must have a prodigious and photographic memory. The small details of the inconveniences of travel, the events, people, environment, and the dialogue are all set down vividly as if the story happened just recently.
Somehow it seems as if only these two travelers, among the backpackers and other tourists they met, had such uncomfortable experiences. Chalk it up to youth or culture shock, it was obvious these bright young Ivy League graduates were not prepared to meet the privations of the Third World of the 1980s.The book ends with loose ends, threads that needed to be tied up, and problems that would have been better resolved. But in the real world, I guess it doesn't always happen that way.
I recommend the book for anyone who would like to travel to distant, foreign parts but who is unsure about how he or she could or would react to dramatic environmental and cultural differences. It makes a good learning lesson.
Book provided by the publisher, for my objective review.