The Home and the World – Rabindranath Tagore

 

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“The home and the world” was written during the time of the Swadeshi movement in India in the early 20th century. Even though the language is prose-like and poetic, the content is heavily philosophical and political. The three main characters represent different facets of the Indian political changes at that time. Nikhil stands for reason, morality and enlightenment. Sandip represents the passion for independence and nationalism. Bimala represents the awakening of a new generation and the departure from old ways. Together, they unfold the complications of this turbulent transitional period. I am most struck by Tagore’s treatment of the themes of justice and use of violence, freedom and truth, and patriotism.

Nikhil and Sandip debate each other at various points throughout the book on justice and the justification of violent force. Nikhil believes that God is justice, and violence is not justified in the pursuit of justice. He has a strong optimism that colonialism will meet its end, and the Indian people should not to use force to fight against colonialism. When confronted by Sandip, who argues that colonial regimes have a “history of stealing for the sake of one’s own country” (pg 37), Nikhil holds strong his belief that eventually, history will prove that these regimes cannot last. Both men want India to be strong and independent, but they morally disagree on how this can be achieved. According to Sandip, violent force and revolution can be used to serve justice to the Indian nation, who had long been oppressed by the British Empire. Leading a nationalist movement, Sandip believes fighting is the solution for his people. Meanwhile, Nikhil philosophizes about the nature of justice. He upholds the value of restraint; he believes that if the Indian people use violence against the oppressor, they are not truly gaining freedom, and will lose the ideal of independence: “so does the violence of passion, which would leave no space between the mind and its object, defeat its purpose”. (pg 60) He believes violence can obscure the end goal, and distract people from the main purpose: justice. He also doubts whether it is moral to use force, even if it is to obtain something of value: “It is true that you cannot get anything except by force. But then what is this force? The strength I believe in is the strength of renouncing.” (pg 47) Both Nikhil and Sandip agree on that the colonial British Empire are thieves, but Nikhil abstains from the Swadeshi movement, while Sandip believes it is just to use whatever method necessary to serve gain independence from the oppressive colonial rule.

Sandip chooses to fight for his own freedom, and shows little patience for debating what is “truth”. He argues that “the world into which we are born is the world of reality” (pg 46), therefore he does not spend time on metaphysics.  On the other hand, Nikhil more often reflects on what is truth and especially its relation to freedom. He believes in intellectual enlightenment, which is demonstrated by his own education and his open-mindedness towards his wife Bimali also learning about the outside world. I interpret Nikhil’s faith in education as an aspect of modern India, and this rests on his belief that education can fight against the regressive ideas of colonialism. This is how India can truly find independence and freedom. In this poetic passage, Nikhil expresses his yearning for truth and freedom: “I longed to find Bimala blossoming fully in all her truth and power. […] One must give up all claims based on conventional rights, if one would find a person freely revealed in truth.” A person or country cannot be truly free until they are self-aware and intellectually progressive, so that they can reflect on their own beliefs and values. In Nikhil’s words, I sense Tagore’s criticism of the Swadeshi movement: the Indian people need to reflect on their own nationalism and identity before violently fighting for a “freedom” that had not been properly envisioned. Tagore urged his people to truly reflected on freedom for themselves: “I tell you, sir, this is just what the world has failed to understand. They all seek to reform something outside themselves. But reform is wanted only in one’s own desires, nowhere else!” (pg 134) This desire can only come from self-enlightenment and true understanding.

Observing Sandip and Nikhil’s conflicts, Bimali herself come to terms with her own love and passion for her country. She is transformed by Sandip’s passion and aggressiveness. She develops her own belief system, just like Nikhil wanted for her (he believes she only truly loves him when she has seen the outside world and has created her own desires). The novel’s essence is beautifully captured in Bimali’s thoughts: “There are many in this world whose minds dwell in brick-built houses – they can afford to ignore the thing called the outside. But my mind lives under the trees in the open, directly receives upon itself the messages borne by the free winds […]” (pg 132). Her home is her country, and she loves both with such sincerity and devotion. “Devotion is beauty itself, in its inner aspect.” (pg 18). Later, when she reflects on her crime, she fully recognizes the consequence of her action: “I could not think of my house as separate from my country: I had robbed my house, I had robbed my country” (pg 144). Patriotism is in essence a love for one’s home as it is a sanctuary. Similar to the way Bimali treats her household with care and tenderness, she also wants her country to be beautiful and protected. Her inner conflict between two different political camps is metaphorical of India’s own struggle for independence and nationalistic identity.

These ideas are complicated and intertwined. India had gone through a revolution to become what she is today. It is not an easy struggle, and the birth of an independent nation is profound and turbulent. Tagore’s language is magnificent and poetic, and deserves another essay. The sophisticated political and philosophical arguments are just as striking and passionate.

 

 

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Bookshelf clean out

I spent the May long weekend going through my book collection that I started 10 years ago. I found quite a few books that I forgot I owned!

Some of them were in quite bad condition so I decided to recycle them. Most of them are still in read-able condition so they were added to the donation pile. I realized a lot of these books I never got around to reading. That makes me realize I should not just buying books for the sake of buying. I should read the ones I do buy, or donate earlier on.

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My sister and I took the books in a cart and took them to community pop up libraries.

It also doubled as a nice walk on a spring evening around our neighbourhood. I’m really impressed at how these cute book exchanges are constructed.

Going through my old books, I also found a number of old book marks that I can use.

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The rest of the books that I didn’t donate, I brought to Pulp Fiction bookstore on Main and Broadway. I wanted to donate the remaining books to the store, but they insisted on giving me some credit for a few titles that they think will sell. I used the store credit to buy Tagore’s “The home and the world” and also took home $3!

Cleaning out old books mean giving someone else the chance to read these books, and re-discovering some books that I still want to read.

 

Transit – Anna Seghers

transitAnna Seghers tells a story about war, but away from the bloody battlefields. Her narration is instead filled with the  bureaucratic nightmare and the stagnation of people who are caught between borders and emotions. Even though far from violence, Transit’s characters still grapple with the effects of the World War that torments their lives and forces them away from the place they belong. Employing irony as a literary device, Seghers addresses the themes of belonging and the temporariness of refugees.

“Transit” starts out slowly, taking a long prelude to build up the ironies that remind readers of the lengthy bureaucracy in Kafka’s “Before the Law” and the near-impossible logic of Heller’s “Catch-22”. The situation that every refugee faces in the novel is the circular logic of the “transit visa”: they must prove that they are intending to leave Marseille, France, in order to get permission to stay. From this central issue, Seghers builds more layers of convoluted, often comical, loopholes in the bureaucratic system: “I have no money to pay the security deposit that you need to get an exit visa, and without the exit visa, not ticket for a passage on a ship.” So just like other refugees in Marseille, the protagonist sits idle, waiting for the right papers to gain rights to more papers. So, in contrast to its name, “transit visa” turns out to be a main stoppage for people’s movements. This juxtaposition highlights the stagnating, suffocating and lengthy wait that refugees endure. They were lucky enough to escape death and violence, but here in France, all stuck in a place that they don’t belong.

Every character that tells their story in the novel expresses nostalgia for their home. This recurring theme adds a melancholic to the irony. The concept of “home”, which means different things to each person, is expressed with sadness, yearning and longing. As the protagonist reflects, “I had forgotten that time stood still for these people once they left their homeland”, he recognizes the importance of “home” as an anchor for the people whose lives have been in constant flux and uncertainty. Marseille acts as a safe haven for people who have escaped, but everyone constantly feels like they are “a stranger, a foreigner”. In one man’s story, he details the formation of Lithuania, which used to be part of the Soviet Union. The changing borders of Europe during and after the War complicate people’s concept of “home”. While the man laments on the bureaucratic consequences of his home becoming a new country, we sense the complex emotions he endures. He feels nostalgic for a place that he no longer has the citizenship rights to be in, while it is also occupied by Nazis. Seghers details the mix of emotions of European refugees: tiredness from the turmoil of war, grief for the loss of peace and perplexity of the changing power and political borders. Perhaps the simplest central feeling that is shared among all is the longing to go back to their origins: “what could be more hellish? War? The war’s going to follow us across the ocean too. I’ve had enough of it. All I want is to go home.”

Each character’s story highlights the temporary settlement that refugees make do with. Marie is constantly running around, looking for someone she doesn’t know is dead; the doctor is waiting for Marie’s decision, and then couldn’t leave on his own either; and the protagonist’s dealing with multiple officers, travel bureaus, and friends who helped him make the right influence and bribes. There is a sense that everyone is in a hurry, but no one is going anywhere. The circles that they races around in illustrate the chaos that Europe was enduring. At the centre of the novel, Marie, Weidel, Seidler and the doctor’s lives are entangled in frustration and indecisiveness. They all know their lives are temporary in Marseille, but none of them are efficient at getting out. This intertwined plot demonstrates the lives of refugees: complicated and precarious.

Towards the end of the novel, a question dawned on me: “what language are these characters speaking?” They are Germans, Russians, etc. who are in France, dealing with Mexican, American, Brazilian etc. consulates. How are they navigating the language barriers? Anna Seghers conveys the compassion that people in crisis share, which fades away the cultural and language differences. Perhaps one passage sums up perfectly the humane message that Seghers shares: “Walking through this crowd for the last time, everything in me that could hope and suffer with other was awakened, and the part of me that drew a sort of bold pleasure from my own and other people’s desolation, and saw suffering as an adventure, dwindled away.

Grotesque – Natsuo Kirino

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In “Grotesque”, Kirino tells a haunting tale of sexual violence, power and the loss of innocence. The writer unapologetically tackles taboo subjects and graphically describes the dark side of society and sexuality. The women’s stories are raw depictions of tensions in Japanese society regarding sex and gender equality.

The first striking female lead of the novel is Yuriko, a Lolita-like nymphomaniac. Her brutal quest for sexual fulfilment dictates her life’s fate as a prostitute. Yuriko not only embraces her life choice, despite knowing society’s judgement of herself, she also wields unyielding power through her pursuit of sex as a commodity. She demonstrates immense intelligence by recognizing the men who are interested in her only for lustful pleasure, and also by using this knowledge to control their actions in her favour. In this regard, she irreversibly affected the lives of Johnson and his family, her uncle and her own family, as well as Kijima and his father. She undeniably has a drastic impact on everyone who comes across her, not only by her striking beauty, but also by her ability to manipulate others. Therefore, Yuriko is able to control her own fate, gain power through sex and predict her own destiny. In this sense, her death is not tragic – it had been foreseen by Yuriko herself and she died unyieldingly, unapologetically and unashamed of herself.

Kazue, on the other hand, though also recognizing the power of sex, did not use it to the same extent that Yuriko did. Her choice of prostitution is driven more because of a need to be accepted and a longing for intimacy. In this regard, her life is more tragic than Yuriko, because ultimately she could not find those in her sexual quest. During her narration, Kazue reflects on the impossible expectations that men have over women: “They want a woman to be educated and to have a proper upbringing an a pretty face, and they want her to have both a submissive character and a taste for sex. […] And yet women have no choice but to try to manage, searching as they go for some redeeming value to their lives.” Kazue struggles through her life to conform to these expectations, by becoming a good student, getting a seemingly good job at an architecture firm and pursue prostitution, sometimes engaging in submissive sex. Eventually, she still fails to find comfort and acceptance, and dies at the hands of the only customer that gave her a sense of intimacy and emotional connection. Her death is tragic. Her life is unfulfilled. At the end of her narration, she still yearns for her love to be returned from Kijima – an impossible wish.

Finally, the unnamed narrator, Yuriko’s sister, is a grand depiction of complete loss of identify and innocence. Growing up under the shadows of Yuriko, she never found her own sense of purpose and hope in life. Growing up, she has to confront jealousy, society’s judgements and expectations, as well as the ugliness of suicide. Her narration is drenched with jealousy, insecurity and a sense of lost youth. She is the sole character to have a total lack of sexual experience, lack of name and motivation. Only towards the end of the novel does she find a purpose in life, to take care of Yuriko’s son, and only then does she search for her own sexual fulfilment. This character also feels out of place in society as Yuriko and Kazue, but fails to recognize why and could not reconcile who she wants to be and who she is.

Yuriko symbolizes sex as power and survival instincts. Kazue depicts restrictive gender expectations in society and isolation due to lack of emotional fulfilment. Yuriko’s sister’s narration is a tragic coming-of-age story.  Mainly through the voices of women, “Grotesque” depicts a story of struggle for identify, equality, acceptance and love. However, although the novel focuses on the ugliness of human nature, the main characters’ strong will to survive and fight for a place in the world ultimately give the book a sense of hope and sympathy.

Cassandra at the Wedding – Dorothy Baker

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Dorothy Baker is a master of painting emotional landscape. After reading her book, I looked back at the cover (this particular nyrb edition), a small part of David Park’s painting, Figure with Fence, and pondered on why it was chosen for this novel. The girl’s face, melancholic and contemplating, against the simple fence with a few flowers on the other side, comes alive in a warm palette of colours, exuding humanity and compassion. Baker’s writing is much alike the cover painting: tender, forgiving and profound. A few themes stand out in this novel: identity, loneliness, and love and family.

Cassandra and Judith, throughout the novel, contemplate their resemblance and connection to one another, to define their own identity. Being identical twins, they form a close sisterhood and also become each other’s alter ego, or a mirror of reflection, to help them recognize their own uniqueness. During the first night that Cassandra returned home, Judith makes an observation about her sister’s voice through the telephone earlier that day, “it was the voice and the way it went. Like a play-back of something I’d have made up and recorded.” As they are aware of their identical physical features, we get the hint that they are trying to grow into separate identities, as Cassandra insists, “to have us become individuals, each of us in our own right, and not to be confused in ourselves, nor confusing to other people.” But hidden within the chaotic thoughts that clutter Cassandra’s mind, between her worries of her thesis, her soon-to-be brother-in-law, her granny and father, she also struggles with her identity separate from her mother, who was also a writer, and whose funeral last year was clearly still present on Cassandra’s mind. Perhaps her avoiding addressing Judith’s fiance by his real name and instead using a sarcastic nickname, and her fussing over her dress that looks very similar to her sister’s, are acts of defiance and escape. She hides away from reality, forming layers of complications in her mind about every small detail, and struggles to form an inner voice that is separate from those surrounding her. Cassandra loses her identity somewhere between being a sister and daughter and granddaughter, and therefore is lost amidst her complicated feelings.

Part of the reason Cassandra is closed off from the world and tragically collapses into turmoil is her loneliness. Her narration doesn’t really mention friends or relationships with other people that aren’t her family or therapist. She confesses to her sister, “You can’t know how it was – being in our apartment by myself after you went to New York. […] every time I think how lonely I was in that apartment.” But at this point the readers also realize that her loneliness isn’t exclusive, when Judith also confides, “I was pretty lonely there myself. […] waiting around for you to come home.” The sisters find themselves in a tragic emotional riff, unaware of each other’s distances. This distance keeps Cassandra from celebrating Judith’s marriage, and makes Judith feel helpless and locked out of Cassandra’s thoughts. It’s a tragic because although they love and understand each other, fail help each the other out of loneliness.

Ultimately, “Cassandra at the Wedding” is about family and love. The Edwards family is caring and lively, with everyone looking out for one another and loving without condition. The sister’s love is the spotlight of the story, and the complicated weaving narrations of the two describes how sometimes love isn’t enough. Judith contemplates, “There is only one thing that would help Cassie […] that would be for me to go to pieces in the same way she has.” In some kind of twisted logic of love, she knows Cassandra would save her if she was the broken one instead. Judith has trust and faith in Cassandra that she herself lacks – perhaps that is the best quality a family can have, faith in one another even when the person doesn’t believe in herself. And Cassandra, returns her sister’s love in her very own way, by offering to give her sister and her husband the piano they shared, “keep your half, and I’ll give my half to Jack. That way it’s all in the family. Different family, but all in it.” This gesture shines some hope on our protagonist – perhaps she had stepped out of the isolation that consumed her, to reach out to her sister. Perhaps she had overcome the crisis, “But I do know how I want to be, and how I believe I can be.” Baker didn’t give us a conclusive ending, but her writing, gentle and kind, gives me hope that with her family’s love, Cassandra would eventually find her identity and get a second chance at life.

 

 

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

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In his only novel, Oscar Wilde explores the themes of humanity, morality and corruption. This book garnered a lot of controversy at the time of published, due partly to Wilde’s discussion and criticism of the superficial English society, which he called “the native land of the hypocrite”. Furthermore, Wilde questions morality, using a metaphorical figure of Satan, and raises discussion of the moral implications of mentorship and corruption. Also, Wilde elaborates on the relationship between art and humanity and aestheticism, utilizing descriptions the environment to highlight inner thoughts and emotions.

Wilde did not paint a very appealing picture of the English society in the 1800s. Through Dorian Gray’s character, the society appears obsessed with superficial beauty and glamour. The importance of youth is so profound and entrenched, placing appearance above everything else. Lord Henry’s persuasive argument of the importance of beauty over thought reflects Wilde’s own opinion towards society at the time, “youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth.” This obsession is highlighted through Gray’s obsession with his own looks, and with his lover Sibyl.  Once the outer appearances are slowly stripped down, Gray is left with no substance, thought, only cruelty. Sibyl Vane is the symbol and metaphor of objectification of beauty, whose real feelings and thoughts are disregarded and her presence only serves as pleasure for men as they choose to. There are themes of feminism weaved into Wilde’s criticism of the English society, as appearance of a woman is a lot more important than her personality, “as long as a woman can look ten years younger than her own daughter, she is perfectly satisfied.” Oscar Wilde recognizes that this obsession is evil, as once Gray was convinced of his own beauty, his road to corruption began. The relationship between aestheticism and morality is therefore a complicated one.

The author also raises difficult questions about moral influence. Lord Henry, who acts as a satanic figure to Dorian Gray, proposes ideas that are controversial, but hard to dismiss. One of them, as Henry says, “There is no such thing as a good influence […] all influence is immoral – immoral from the scientific point of view.” Here, Wilde revisits the philosophical debate of existentialism and humanism, argues that it is ethically wrong to cast any influence on another human being. Therefore, our societies, which are based on hierarchy and mentorship, are fundamentally immoral. Later, when Dorian Gray himself becomes negative influences to other English men, he projects the same characteristics of Lord Henry that makes him satanic. This may be obviously evil, but Hallward, who tried to show Gray beauty and morality, also should be guilty of corrupting him: “you met me and flattered me, and taught me to be vain with my good looks.” If Hallward and Lord Henry both push Dorian Gray to corruption, while one has “good” intentions and the other so clearly wrong, then influences are immoral no matter their substance. Wilde leaves this topic open to his readers to reflect on.

The centrepiece of Wilde’s novel is Dorian Gray’s picture, a piece of art that reflects Gray’s humanity. Art and humanity are therefore tied closely together, and art is a mirror of the deteriorating soul. Beauty, however, is not related to humanity nor art, and is left out of the dynamic equation. Dorian Gray remained beautiful, but his soul did not, and neither did his picture. A complex relationship is developed here, because in the preface, Wilde starts with this sounding statement: “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.” Tying with the discussion between aestheticism and morality, art brings a perspective that is separate from philosophy. There is something human and emotional that is a fundamental part of art, and as Hallward laments, “I felt, Dorian, that I had told too much, that I had put too much of myself in it.” This picture of Dorian Gray does not just reflect Gray’s soul, but also a part of Hallward, who had always only hoped the best for Gray. Beauty, morality, art and humanity are important themes of this novel.

Wilde’s description of the surrounding environmental also acts as reflections of Gray’s inner thoughts and soul. The beauty of the opening scene is described perfectly, “the studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.” This scene draws readers in with its fragrances and feeling of angelic purity, a perfect complement to Dorian Gray’s inner and outer beauty at the time. As Gray sinks deeper into debauchery, the scene also changes drastically, “dumb shadows crawl into the corners of the room, and crouch there. Outside, there is the stirring of birds among the leaves, or the sound of men going forth to their work, or the sigh and sob of the wind coming down from the hills.” Gray’s thoughts are heavy with guilt and paranoia, and in the dark nights, he thinks about the life he had chosen. Pages and pages of exquisite description of both Gray’s outside world and inner thoughts brings the character and his thoughts to life. Wilde had turned philosophical discussion into art.

The Go-Between – L. P. Hartley

“Isolation” would be the single word I’d use to describe the feeling that L. P. Hartley’s most prominent novel evoked in me. The Go-Between’s hero’s, Leo Colston, coming-of-age story is marked with a deep sense of sadness and loss of innocence that he could not share with anyone, and therefore his feelings buried in a past time. The novel sophistically narrates the sense of loneliness, shedding of naivete and realization of the complication of human feelings, all on top of a peaceful, upper-class backdrop, seemingly shielded from the chaos of the world outside.

Leo Colston is a character with a lot of emotional depth but little social connection. His social status prevents him from connecting with his host family, even though they are welcoming of his stay. The prologue sets the tone for the novel, and also foreshadows the loneliness that Leo will eventually live with throughout his life, despite his deep compassion and observant mind. Throughout the novel, Leo often withdraws into his own thoughts, or finds solace being alone in the field or farm. As the key player in two converging love affairs, he also is a secret holder, pushing him deeper into his own solitude and preventing him from trusting and opening his heart. Near the end of the novel, Leo reflects, “I was a Tower of Silence, on which lay whitening the bones of a dead secret – no, not dead in that sense, but very much alive and death-dealing and fatal.” So in every aspect of his life, not getting along with schoolmates, holding a lower class social status and involuntarily being the centre of a secretive scandalous affair, Leo finds himself locked away from the world around him.

Leo’s insistence of learning what ‘spooning’ is from Ted Burgess is symbolic of his loss of innocence. Some great pieces of coming-of-age stories, such as Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird, portray the painful and sad moment when naivete is lost and the realization of reality sets in. L. P. Hartley joins the ranks of amazing writers in describing this sadness, in The Go-Between’s case, also mixed is nostalgia and guilt. Void of a fatherly figure, Leo is drawn towards Ted, but their relationship is complicated. While Leo wants to be loyal to Ted, he could not have fully understood Ted’s motivation in using Leo as a go-between, and therefore when Leo comes to the maturity state to comprehend his role in Ted and Marian’s affair, he experiences a strong sense of abandonment and distrust.

In coming-of-age, Leo also starts grasping more abstract sense of morality through his role as a go-between. Though he involuntarily facilitated the forbidden affair, he “had a strong sense of ought and ought not. […] Now for some such scruple I felt constrained to take preventive action – and at a sacrifice to myself.” This is no other than altruism – which grew from a boyhood crush on Marian and boyhood friendship with Ted and Hugh. Leo, in growing up, has learnt to put other’s well-being above himself, because he feels a sense of responsibility to the situation that arose.

Finally, Leo develops a budding understanding of the sophistication of human emotions. When Marian and Ted turn on him, Leo’s world seems to have collapsed. Marian was the centre of his admiration – his “enchantress” – and with her anger towards Leo, she took away the world he held so dearly. Leo finally confronts the reality that he means little to Marian and realizes his true role in her relationship. But with this he also starts to comprehend the complexity of Marian’s emotion and her place between her affair with Ted and engagement to Hugh. Leo reflects, “I feared for Lord Trimingham, I wept with Marian, but for Ted I grieved.” Perhaps Leo feels the sense of tragedy of three people’s lives and bearing witness to each person’s angle of the story, is the only person who truly could understand what love is.

Unfortunately the tragedy and the deep isolation that Leo was put in made him distant to his emotions and could not transform his compassion and understanding of love into his own emotions. In the epilogue, L. P. Hartley invites readers to reflect on Marian and Ted’s affair – was it true love and was it beautiful? As readers had followed Leo’s footsteps throughout the entire novel, we have the chance to judge for ourselves what love is. This is where Leo’s world of facts and imagination collide and he ponders one last time: “A foreigner in the world of the emotions, ignorant of their language but compelled to listen to it, I turned into the street.” The Go-Between is a sophisticated novel in essence, and the weaving themes of love and coming-of-age bring out human nature’s deepest and most forbidden desires.