The Pagoda

Patricia Powell

Published by Harvest Books, 1999
ISBN 10: 0156008297 / ISBN 13: 9780156008297
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Synopsis: Mr. Lowe lives the simple and happy life of a shopkeeper. A Chinese immigrant to Jamaica in the 1890s, Lowe revels in the lush beauty of his adoptive land. But the past confronts Lowe in everything he does, and so his history reveals itself-the tale of his exile from China, his shipboard adventures, an unwanted pregnancy and the arrangement that was made to avoid scandal. The arrangement placed Lowe in a marriage of convenience with a mysterious widow, Miss Sylvie. Lowe and Sylvie's relationship is complex, vivid, erotic, and full of secrets. Sylvie is a light-skinned black woman who, in the course of their three decades together, gives up three dark-skinned children for adoption. But Lowe's secret is much more startling, and remarkable-Lowe is actually a woman who began cross-dressing to pass as a man because it was illegal for Chinese women to emigrate. This is the story of the destruction of a far-away world: the burning of Lowe's shop and the demolition of his masks; and the creation of a dream: the building of a pagoda where culture and the past are accepted and acceptable.

Review: The Pagoda is the kind of book that revolves around a Big Secret. Give it away, and suffer the wrath of readers everywhere; keep it, and find yourself muttering enigmatic inanities about "the fluidity of identity" and so on. This much, at least, is safe to explain: Chinese immigrant Lowe runs a small village shop in post-emancipation Jamaica. Caught between black villagers and white planters and threatened on both sides, Lowe leads a tenuous, guarded existence. He marries the light-skinned Miss Sylvie, becomes estranged from his adult daughter, Liz, and has a mysterious, complex relationship with his white benefactor, Cecil. Then, one night, someone from the village burns his shop to the ground, and soon the various masks Lowe has assumed for survival begin falling away.

Granted, by the time the Big Secret is revealed, readers have a pretty good idea of what it is--but there are others to take its place. In The Pagoda Patricia Powell creates a world thick with sex and secrets and tropical smells, in prose that is by turns lyrical and claustrophobic. "The secrets inside that glimmering white house and in that village had been so tightly hemmed in that sometime soon they'd all be choking," she writes, and the reader may sometimes feel the same way. Worse, it's hard to warm up to Lowe, a man so detached from his emotions and the people around him that for years he has lived as if "through some kind of veil."

But The Pagoda succeeds in another, more difficult task: dramatizing the fundamental ambivalence of human relations corrupted by power. Nothing is black and white in Powell's third novel, least of all the relationship between victim and victimizer, or between savior and torturer. Lowe ends up forgiving even the man who burns down his shop, "for he saw clearly how they were all thrown in and piled up on top of one another and vying for power and trying to carve out niches." For Lowe and for all those whom his secret touches, hatred and love mix in equal measure--a volatile mixture, and one that may leave readers feeling somewhat stunned. The Pagoda is a fine novel, but not easy on anyone involved. --Mary Park

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Title: The Pagoda
Publisher: Harvest Books
Publication Date: 1999
Binding: Paperback
Book Condition: Used: Good

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