Wendy Law-Yone’s The Road to Wanting (2010)
Vintage Books, 2011

(Looking for a swallow rather than a full glass? ORANGE Squirt below.)

When readers meet Na Ga, the narrator of The Road to Wanting, she is preparing a noose.

She uses a longyi, a simple tube of fabric that you can wear tied around your waist as a skirt or around your chest like a towel when you step from the shower.

“You can shower in it, swim in it, change in it discreetly while out in the open, as behind a dressing-room screen.”

Or you can use it to make a noose with which to hang yourself.

It’s quite an introduction.

But readers don’t have to worry because, only a few pages later, Na Ga explains that she was only “playing” at killing herself.

At least, that’s what she tells us.

But it doesn’t seem like much of a game.

The narrative isn’t stuffed with terms that only a Burmese or Eastern reader would understand. When they do appear, there is an explanation offered and it’s easy for readers to follow the story.

Well, technically speaking, it’s easy. But, in fact, reading The Road to Wanting is not at all easy.

My experience of Burmese literature is limited to one book, Nu Nu Yi’s Smile as They Bow, but I didn’t need to read even a single book to gather the impression that Burmese stories are likely to be filled with sadness.

“I worried about crying noisily without knowing it. Awake, I knew how to swallow my tears without making a sound. Asleep, I couldn’t control them.”

Na Ga is a Wild Lu, but she has been stolen from her homeland and her family, and her existence is hard and lonely; she experiences no affection or protection as a girl, and she learns to swallow her tears because she must.

“Maybe I am nothing more than the severed tail of a lizard, a useless piece of flesh thrashing about in the dirt well after the creature has darted off elsewhere.”

She internalizes her sense of inferiority and, yet, her strength of spirit is revealed in isolated incidents. When she is able to do so, she exercises her determination and there are moments of respite in her story.

There is even some laughter. (A hotel worker, struggling with a language, means to say that she doesn’t want a tip but actually says that she doesn’t want to f*ck.)

And there are kindnesses. And there is some good fortune — although amongst a lot of bad fortune.

Of course her experiences have dramatically affected the way that Na Ga views the world.

“A girl like Minzu — pretty, healthy, ripe for the picking — incredible that a girl like her has not yet been broken in. Or broken. Or cracked. Or cracked open. It’s only a matter of time, of course.”

Perhaps that is true. Certainly some of Na Ga’s experiences are truly horrifying. Unimaginable for western readers for whom weak lattes, cranky toddlers, and bureaucratic runarounds constitute a bad day.

But The Road to Wanting does offer hope to Na Ga and to readers.

“Okay, don’t look at me. But listen to me, at least. You have to start living. You’re young, you have a future. I want you to start breathing, to quit holding your breath.”

I read Wendy Law-Yone’s novel in a single day because I was afraid that, if I stopped reading and put it down, that I wouldn’t have the strength to pick it up again, to return to Na Ga’s struggles when I could choose an Anita Brookner or Louise Penny novel instead.

And I think I held my breath the entire time.

My life hasn’t demanded that I learn to swallow my tears that way that Na Ga had to, but I feel as though I didn’t start breathing again until I read The Road to Wanting’s last page.

And that’s when I cried, but not so much because Na Ga had suffered, but because she had endured, and because there was something else to come.

Sometimes the hardest books to read are the books that touch you most deeply. I find it hard to reach for them but, when I do, I am reminded that I should do so more often. This is the kind of experience that made me a reader to begin with.

ORANGE Squirt 2011: Book 13 of 20 (Wendy Law-Yone)

Originality A Burmese narrator (an abo, a Wild Lu, actually)
Readability Reflective, meandering
Author’s voice Possessed, painfully aware, distanced
Narrative structure Circuitous, mirroring personal struggle with identity
Gaffes None spotted
Expectations Blurb from Alberto Manguel: “hauntingly beautiful book”