The Road to Wanting – Wendy Law-Yone

This is my first pick from the Orange Prize Long List 2011The Road to Wanting is Wendy Law-Yone’s third novel but my first experience of a novel set in South Eastern Asia, in this case Burma and Thailand.

The “Wanting” of the title is a town on the Chinese/Burmese border where we first encounter our narrator, Naga, a young Burmese girl whose life up until now has been a mixture of poverty, abuse and neglect.   Jiang, the man who is to ensure her safe passage over the border to Burma, has just killed himself and Naga also contemplates suicide as she sits in a hotel room, in a limbo-like situation awaiting her fate.

 The first person narrative reveals a litany of trials and tribulations which have beleaguered Naga from an early age – as a child her parents sold her into slavery.  Later she is “rescued” by an American family living in Rangoon and she leads a relatively comfortable existence as friend/playmate for their daughter.  However, happiness is always in short supply as the family abandon her when the political situation becomes unstable.  Naga finds herself tricked into prostitution in a brothel in Thailand and is later “rescued” again by another American, Will who will, in turn, abandon her when the novelty wears off.  Thus, Naga finds herself at this turning point in her life, facing the possibility of returning to a homeland which probably doesn’t exist anymore.  In the tradition of her tribe, the Wild Lu, each child had a “name-seed” to which their real name was entrusted but Naga never discovers her real name, mirroring the fact that she is displaced, not really belonging anywhere or to anyone.

I loved the way the author captures the sights, sounds and smells of Burma and Thailand, the traditions of Naga’s tribe, the Wild Lu (apparently non-existent but she convinced me!), the seediness of Bangkok, the chasm between the rich and the poor.  Surprisingly there is also humour in the midst of all the tragedy.  This is a very readable novel, lyrical and a very quiet read which somehow reflects the calm, stoic nature of our narrator Naga.   She’s been passed from pillar to post and so dehumanised, always wanting to please and serve so that she’s never really had the opportunity to be her own person.

The Road to Wanting is a  beautifully written, intelligent account of a lost girl at a crossroads in her life; its, at times, matter of fact tone belies a poignancy which deeply affects the reader and you’re left with the hope that Naga will eventually achieve the happiness she so richly deserves.

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9 Comments

  1. FleurFisher says:

    I’ve only read the first couple of chapters, but I’m loving the immediacy. I haven’t quite got a handle on the story yet but hopefully I’ll get there, and it’s lovely yo read a positive report.

  2. admin says:

    It’s very different from anything else I’ve read recently, Jane. I think readers will differ in their opinion of Naga, some will want to give her a cuddle, some will want to shake her out of her passivity.

  3. Verity says:

    This one hasn’t fallen into my hands yet, but now I’ve read your review, I’m hoping that it will. I’m really enjoying my Orange long list reading this month.

  4. admin says:

    The library is a wonderful resource, Verity. ;-) I’ve been quite selective in which ones I want to read from the list. Some titles are calling much more loudly than others!

  5. This one just arrived from the UK for me, and I’m even more excited to read it after seeing your review. The setting sounds fascinating, and I’m thrilled to hear there is humor in it too.

  6. admin says:

    Thanks for commenting, Carrie, it is quite dark humour, I must admit!

  7. This is one of the only ones I couldn’t get from my library, but your review is making me think I should buy a copy right now. I think I’ll wait until I’ve finished all the ones I can actually get hold of for now, but am sure I’ll end up buying it very soon. Thank you for letting me know that it is so good.

  8. admin says:

    Jackie, I think our libraries should join forces as I haven’t been able to get a few of the ones I wanted! Did you read The Birth of Love yet? I started it but got sidetracked and haven’t got tempted by it again.

  9. Fiona says:

    Oh, pleased to see such a good review of this book. It has interested me for a while (even though I keep forgetting the title.)

    My dad is Burmese, so my family always looks out for books set there.

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