Edinburgh by Alexander Chee

edinburghI’m impressed, very impressed.

Both by Alexander Chee’s wonderful debut novel and by the fact that this is makes four “new favorite books” in a row.  I’m really rolling towards a wonderful summer.

Edinburgh  is a novel about the long term affects of devastating events.  The narrator is Fee, short for Aphias, a Korean-American child growing up in Maine.  Fee is blessed with a beautiful singing voice, one so good that he is invited to join a professional boy’s choir featuring boys from all over the state of Maine.  Unfortunately, the choir director is a pedophile who has been targeting the boys he teaches.

Though the choir director is arrested in the first quarter of the novel, the affects his attacks have on the boys take a dramatic toll on them in the following years.  Some do not survive.  One, Peter, was Fee’s first love.  Though the two boys remain best friends well into high school, Fee is unable to save Peter who commits suicide.  The novel continues to follow Fee as he struggles to recover through college and well up into his 30’s.

One thing that keeps Fee going is his relationship with his Korean grandfather and the fantastic stories his grandfather’s culture brings.  These myths weave into Fee’s own life giving the book brief moments of magical realism that the reader can take as fact or as dream.  Fee’s father faced his own tragedy, one even worse than Fee’s, when his six older sisters were taken by the Japanese during World War II.  Fee’s grandfather never saw or heard from his sisters ever again.  He dies not knowing what happened to them.

This sounds like very heavy reading, and it is, but Edinburgh is also filled with wonderful bits of insight that I found beautiful.

Some examples.

When the choir director is arrested and the scandal hits the newspapers his parents are forced to tell his grandmother, who lives with, them about it:

Dad told her, she stayed quiet.  She sighed, and it sounded like a sigh that had been learned under a different sorrow.

When Fee finally comes to understand why he never turned the choir director in, even after he had moved on to other boys in the choir:

Hiding him hid me.

In college, the first time Fee has consensual sex with another boy:

Sex is asking someone to touch you where your skin is thinnest.

Think how important the word “asking” is in that sentence.

In college where Fee is studying art he begins to have fits of uncontrolled crying  while posing for another artist who took Polariods of each pose to help complete the work later.  Fee remembers the Polariods the choir director took:

The teacher had marked each pose with a careful Polaroid, and the tears that day were my only reminders that the photographs Big Eric (the choir director) had taken of us had never been found.  Of everything that had been turned in for evidence, the pictures were not among them.  I wondered then if somewhere, pictures of me with him filled a book.  Being shown to someone else.

Fee thinks about his grandparents late in the novel and of all the hardships they faced in Korea and afterwards:

Their whole difficult lives seems not to weigh on them at all.  Taken as mornings and meals, suppers and evenings, all of the world could be carried, both the sad and the delicious, their lives seemed to say.

I know that’s just a more poetic version of taking things “one day at a time” but doesn’t it feel so much better.  Break it all down into “mornings and meals” and you can live through both the “sad and the delicious.”  Isn’t “delicious” a much better word here than “happy?”

You can probably guess that I’m a little bit in love with Alexander Chee’s narrator at this point.  Where were you when I was 13, Fee, and still playing Dungeons and Dragons late into the night like you?

In case you’re someone who needs to know before you start reading a book like this, Fee gets a happy ending though the plot does go a little bit astray in the end which does feel rushed.  Mr. Chee’s plot choices are not the ones I would have made, but they are his to make.

And I did like they way he brought the story to a close in the end.


Edinburgh is my fifth book in the 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge.


8 thoughts on “Edinburgh by Alexander Chee

    1. I think if I read this book again, and there’s a good chance that I will someday, I’ll be more supportive of his plot choices. It can be difficult to accept what happens in a novel, just as it is in life.

  1. Some superb quotes there, James. An ambitious subject for a debut novel, but you make it sound like a fantastic, if heart-rending, read. Wonderful review, and an author that looks worth keeping an eye on.

  2. I was sorry not to nab his new one at BEA as it sounds fantastic. This review is gorgeous and I want to read the book that inspired it☺

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