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Tropic Gothic

By Margaret Black

Behold the Many

By Lois-Ann Yamanaka

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 337 pages, $24

Dark tales involving ghosts, dysfunctional families, poverty, rape, addiction, and tuberculosis sound like something by Joyce Carol Oates, set in the gray dreariness of 19th-century upstate New York. But Behold the Many, by the frenetically lively, frequently comic Lois-Ann Yamanaka, is an over-the-top gothic that takes place in gorgeously colorful 20th-century Hawaii. Moreover, much of this multivoiced novel is in Hawaiian pidgin. A gothic novel in pidgin? Yes. And it works. You just have to read like a kid who doesn’t know all the words and certainly isn’t going to look them up. You keep reading and pretty soon you understand everything.

Behold the Many opens with a wrenchingly beautiful evocation of a lush, rain-drenched valley, compared in glorious specificity to a woman’s naked body. Only suddenly it turns out that there actually is a body, one that’s bloody, raped, and murdered. It is Hosana, the oldest daughter of Anah, the novel’s central character. And it is Hosana who will ultimately resolve the quarrel between Anah and the ghosts who are making her life a misery.

The novel quickly turns back to Anah’s childhood, and although there are flashes forward and back, the story remains essentially chronological. Born about 1900 to a long- suffering, ill-treated Japanese mother and a mean-spirited, abusive Portuguese father, Anah lives with her family in dire poverty on a sugar plantation on O’ahu. When a white doctor diagnoses tuberculosis in Anah’s baby sister, five-year-old Leah, the father insists she be exiled to a distant orphanage. He remembers outbreaks of cholera, polio, and smallpox in the camp that have killed hundreds, including members of his own extended family, so he doesn’t want Leah around.

Tiny Leah becomes hysterical when she’s abandoned to the nuns, but soon receives comfort from a small boy ghost she thinks is Jesus. In rapid succession Anah’s next younger sister, Aki, is also diagnosed with TB and sent to the same orphanage, followed shortly thereafter by Anah herself. Anah finds Leah dying, and Aki raising all kinds of hell—no ghost Jesuses for super-tough little Aki:

I am Aki. ‘Breathe the clean mountain air,’ they tell me. I hate this place. ‘Eat the oatmeal with honey and cream.’ No taste good this haole food. . . . ‘Do the morning calisthenics.’ I hate this place. ‘Feed the hens.’ Let them die. . . . ‘Pray.’ God is dead. I will sin.

Aki can see Leah’s ghost comforter, but she knows it to be Seth, a little boy who smashed his skull open when he fell out of a tree. However, bloody-mindedness can’t save Aki any more than innocence could save Leah, and when she dies, she becomes an aggressive tormenter of Anah because Anah has lied to her about going home.

The orphanage has the requisite evil nun (a German, of course, who is racist, as well as narrow-minded and doctrinaire), but there is also the rescuing Sister Mary Deborah, who sets Anah to beekeeping and making honey. (Why has beekeeping suddenly become the contemporary fictional therapy for childhood abuse? Think The Secret Life of Bees.) Milk and butter come to the orphanage from a Portuguese dairyman, father of the unfortunate Seth, and his family ultimately supply Anah with a husband as well as an entire clan to replace the one she has lost. By the very act of escaping the orphanage, however, Anah incurs the curses of the little orphan ghosts.

What makes the gratuitously awful events—and there are lots of them—of this recklessly outrageous tale so compelling is the energy of the author and the marvelous voices she creates. The Chinese cook at the orphanage confesses that she’s tried to change her ways since accepting Jesus Christ, but she still sees the little orphan ghosts: “I so sorry I sin,” she says, “I tell lie to the Reverent Mother, which is big number one commanment thou shall not give false testimary. What I going tell her? The ghost been bust me up ’cause I no listen them?” Instead, when “Reverent Mother ask me how come my face and arm all cut up, I tell her I clumsy with knives.”

When Anah finally leaves to marry, Seth curses her: “Curse the ground you walk on. Burn your feet on earth’s hell. . . . Curse your womb, Dirty waters break between your legs. Curse you with girl babies. No namesake, no heirs. Dead babies, deformed, crippled.” But at the end Seth gets to the true crux of the matter: “Why have you left me there? It is me. Seth. It is cold here, Anah. I want to go home too.”

Yamanaka takes us to a totally different America, filled with completely unfamiliar immigrants who are themselves from vastly different backgrounds and beliefs. Hostilities proliferate—grinding poverty’s a big factor here—at precisely the same time that individuals intermarry, and families become ethnically and culturally mixed. Anah’s father’s family directs its virulently anti-Asian hatred at Anah, her sisters, and their Japanese mother, while the mother regards her Portuguese in-laws as “filthier than pigs.”

But, sounding like a bell through the anger and violence come words from the Apocryphal Acts of John that Anah periodically repeats, often in statement and response with someone else—“If you are a traveler, I will be a road”; “If you look at me, I will be a lamp”; “If you see me, I will be a mirror”; “Love is sweet, and sweetness dances.” Throughout the story these exchanges tether Anah and those she cares for to their humanity, often expressing, when the characters have little reason to believe it, faith in life, beauty, families, and love.

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