“One mustn’t make the mistake of judging one’s relationship to a person by how that relationship ends,” says Benny, one of the main characters in Charmaine Craig’s sweeping and complex historical novel Miss Burma. He is speaking to his wife, Khin, and good friend Saw Lay, of his aunt Louisa. “She was a warrior in her way, Auntie Louisa,” he says. “Did you know that’s what her name means? ‘Renowned warrior.’”
It’s a bittersweet bit of foreshadowing at the start of a story in which even the strongest bonds will be tested and fractured by the weight of constant war, ethnic conflict, and revolution. It’s also a nod to another Louisa, Khin and Benny’s then unborn daughter, who, in the course of the novel, will become both a renowned warrior and a complicated symbol of national unity as the winner of the Miss Burma beauty pageant. (The novel’s characters are based on the author’s mother, a Miss Burma winner-turned-freedom fighter, and grandparents.)
At the center of Craig’s novel is the marriage between Benny, a member of Rangoon’s Jewish community, and Khin, a Karen — one of Burma’s long-persecuted ethnic minorities. Craig masterfully weaves the lives of her characters into the larger story of Burma’s history, guiding readers along smoothly — if uneasily — without bogging the narrative down in a series of history lessons.
Still, while Miss Burma covers only forty years of Burma’s complex history, from 1926 to 1965, it can, at times, feel like far more. This is no fault of the author, but of the extraordinarily eventful period covered in the novel, a period that saw Burma’s transition from a British colony to a ravaged battleground during World War II, to an independent nation devastated by ongoing ethnic struggles, political coups and assassinations, and a military dictatorship — not to mention the meddling of regional and international players like China and the United States.
The characters in Miss Burma experience these major events and many more personal tragedies— torture, arrest, and the deaths and disappearances of loved ones, with remarkable reserves of strength. They live and struggle and fight for themselves and for their country in an atmosphere of ever-changing alliances, personal breakdowns, and deepening suspicions. Craig’s details and descriptions of life during and after wartime are harrowing and relentless — the feeling that something terrible is about to happen, once it sets in, hangs over every page. Yet these characters persevere, trying to “find a way to do more than endure.”
Jonathan Arlan is a writer and editor currently based in Kansas City. He is the author of the recently published travel memoir Mountain Lines: A Journey through the French Alps.