Edinburgh by Alexander Chee

Rating: 10/10 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

Title: Edinburgh
Author: Alexander Chee
Genre: Contemporary literature
URL: Amazon
Price:  US$11.20
Other Information/Warnings: Possible sexual abuse triggers
Summary (from the publisher): As a child, Fee is a gifted Korean American soprano in a boys´ choir in Maine. Silent after being abused by the director, he is unable to warn the other boys or protect his best friend, Peter, from the director´s advances. Even after the director is imprisoned, Fee continues to believe he is responsible, and while he survives into adulthood, his friends do not. In the years that follow, he struggles to bury his guilt and grief, until he meets a beautiful young student who resembles Peter, and he is forced to confront the demons of his brutal past.

My Review: What is so remarkable about Alexander Chee’s debut novel Edinburgh is that he does what is so very difficult to do: he takes what is ugly and despicable and creates a compelling, utterly truthful and, yes, an even beautiful story of it. By interweaving his prose with Korean folklore, Chee imbues the novel with an almost dreamlike state, one where the dream is equal parts part nightmare and a rose-tinted remembrance of a childhood gone too quickly.

Aphias Zee (nicknamed Fee) is a 12-year-old singer in a Maine boys’ choir where it is revealed that the choir director, Big Eric, is selectively choosing boys from the group, grooming them and then subjecting them to frequent sexual abuse. As the book progresses we see the relationship Fee has with the other boys in the group and his especially strong connection with one of Big Eric’s favorite boys, Peter. We are drawn in and feel the pain Fee does when he sees what the choir director is doing, understanding it for what it is, but not being able to distance the sexual abuser’s horrible acts from his own emerging homosexuality and his own attraction to Peter.

But what Fee–who is a mix of Korean and Scottish parentage–also cannot reconcile for himself is the fact that he isn’t like Peter, he isn´t fair-haired and therefore isn’t one of Big Eric´s favorites. In this way, Chee explores two fascinating and remarkable aspects of Fee’s life: the complexity and emotionally confusing relationship the abused can sometimes have with their perpetrator, as well as the devastating feeling of being an outsider, of being a young child who doesn’t look like the majority of others. It is a fascinating dance that Chee performs and he does it subtly, with characters and prose that are rich and full and deeply human.

Years later, when Fee is grown–having barely survived a deeply self-destructive period–the unease of his youth hangs like a storm cloud over his present. He begins teaching at a prep school where he encounters an appealing student named Warden. With this turn of events, Chee brilliantly weaves in an impending sense of danger that permeates the latter half of the book. We worry for the grown Fee. We feel for Warden. The result is a deeply complex set of emotions the reader is put through: we dread Fee’s attraction to Warden; we sense Fee’s deep need to pay a penance for a sin he did not commit; we know the danger if Fee goes down the wrong path; we understand the guilt Fee carries for surviving what others did not. It is a brilliant balancing act, showing us with complete, subtle honesty how the effect of sexual abuse upon a child can sometimes linger long into adulthood.

Edinburgh is not an easy read. Those who have survived such childhood traumas may especially have a difficult time with it, but the story and the dynamics between the characters are truthful, sometimes beautiful and other times terribly ugly, and the novel is–when all is said and done–masterfully written and flawlessly executed. A fascinating, compelling and moving work that should not be missed.

Originally reviewed for Elisa Rolle.
Reviewed by Paul Bens