Book Review: Edinburgh by Alexander Chee*

I found the imagery and prose in Alexander Chee’s 2001 novel Edinburgh so luminous and lyrical that I sometimes actually forgot for a moment the gut-wrenching topic of the story. That such a painful and ugly tale could be so beautifully told adds to the whisper of redemption and hope at the end.

The first person narrator for most of the novel (the perspective changes for a short time toward the end of the book, somewhat disorientingly, which is likely intentional and, I think, mostly works) is Aphias, or Fee, a young adolescent growing up in Maine with his father, who is Korean, and his mother, of Scottish descent. Fee is a gifted soprano and joins a boy’s choir, where he meets Peter, a tow-headed boy who seems to Fee to be lit from within. The director of the choir, Big Eric, is a pedophile who abuses many of the boys in the choir, with life-scarring effects. In the midst of this close-knit but toxic world, Fee is plagued by confusion and guilt: Is he like Big Eric because he also is attracted to boys, especially Peter, one of Big Eric’s favorites? How exactly does he feel about the fact that Big Eric isn’t so interested in him becauase he’s not blond and light like the other abused boys? And is he also to blame because, in his confusion and guilt, he discourages Peter from exposing Big Eric?
The aftermath of this abuse follows Fee, Peter and the other boys in the choir in universally disastrous ways. Several of the boys end up killing themselves, and Fee — the one who survives — spends nearly a decade doing drugs, having a lot of sex, and generally under-achieving.

The story then skips forward in time, and we find Fee, now in a healthy and stable relationship, and the art teacher and swimming coach at a small private boarding school in New England. There he meets a student who reminds him remarkably of Peter, and who, it turns out (unbeknownst to Fee, somewhat unbelievably) is the son of Big Eric (who eventually did go to jail). Warden — his name is really Edward — has been raised by his grandparents and only learns as a teen about his father’s crimes. The relationship that follows between Fee and Warden is fraught and painful, but ultimately redeeming. This is a story that could easily fall into melodrama or sentimentality, but it never does. The beauty of the imagery, the dream-like lyricism of the prose, and the non-linearity of the narrative (at times I wondered if you couldn’t reshuffle a lot of the passages without disturbing the over-all effect too much) all hold up the otherwise gruesome story, making it paradoxically beautiful and tender.

This is a relatively short book, but it is so chock-full of stuff I could talk about — that is, if I could first puzzle out all the pieces I noticed. I certainly think I will need to read it again to feel like I can put the puzzle together (if anyone wants to read it with me so I would have someone to talk to about it, I would be game!). So, without being able to draw any smart conclusions, let me just point to a few things I especially noticed. It is entirely likely that I am bringing my own interests and concerns to my reading of Edinburgh but I could not help read this in some ways as a deserved indictment of the church and of its failure to deal honestly and compassionately with human sexuality. (Again, I may be entirely bringing this to the book, but here goes.)

Edinburgh is just awash in images of water, light/fire, dirt/earth/rocks/burial, and wind/air/breath. Fee lives on the rocky coast of Maine; he spends time on the ocean; he is a swimmer; a pond and rainstorms figure prominantly; churches look like inverted Noah’s arks. There are fiery red-headed ancestors who go up in flames; and lighting; and sunlight shining down on beautiful boys; and the tow-headed Peter who later literally lights himself on fire, first as self-mutilation and then as suicide. There are several huge rocks on which key scenes play out; and there is the story of the buried church in Edinburgh where not-yet dead plague victims were buried; there is Fee’s obsession with underground tunnels; and there is the stone chapel that Fee builds with Warden, at which he sacrifices his photo of the dead Peter. And there are swirling windstorms and birds and little boys’ hauntingly beautiful voices. All of this “elemental”/church imagery brought to my mind the midieval church, as did Fee’s fascination with the plague in Europe and his several references to castrated boy sopranos. The gruesomeness of Big Eric teaching these beautiful boys to sing Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy) and Gloria in Excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the Highest) — two cherished (by me at least) parts of the Christian liturgy — while at the same time abusing them so hideously — well, it struck me as a brilliant and heartbreaking indictment of how little, in fact, the church has changed when it comes to its brutal hypocracies. (Ask me if I’m a Christian who is just haning on by a thread; go ahead, ask me!)

The figure of Peter, too, seemed to me to be a Christ-figure (though the name, and all the rock imagery, threw me for awhile). He’s sort of an anti-Christ Christ figure, though, how I often think of Christ now, more brutalized by the church itself than by anything the Romans can inflict on him. But the light surrounding Peter is unmistakable; the blood he sheds, literally, in acts of self-mutilation — and then “shares,” horribly, by spraying it in a mosh pit; and then his gruesome death, consumed by fire and light. His connection to Warden — Edward, Big Eric’s son — is explicit, and it is ultimately through his relationship with Warden — who Fee is able, at least in some small way, to “save,” unlike Peter — that Fee finds at least the glimmer of redemption — a redemption that is also intimately tied to his grown-up, relatively healthy relationship with his lover (whose name I forget; I have a memory like a seive and I don’t have the book in front of me).

Which all brings me to the title, Edinburgh. In high school, Fee works for a scholar who shares with him a document written by a plague victim who was buried in a church in Edinburgh. It is unclear whether the writer of the document survived, but his manuscript — written while he still had tapers left to see with — is finally unearthed in the long-buried church. In part because of this story, Fee becomes obsessed with underground passages, with spaces buried in the earth. Edinburgh is a city in Scottland, of course, built on a promontory of rock, and its name means (according to Wikipedia, a most reliable source, you know), among other possibilities, “Edwin’s Fort.” I’m not sure what to make of all this except that it seems through their relationship, Fee and Edward are able to survive, even if only in small ways; to find solid ground again, but above ground, in the light; to be unburied by their pasts so that they can live and love. And while it seems that these boys will find redemption (even Peter, I guess), it’s not so clear at all that the church can or will.

I really am still just thinking this all through. There’s so much, and it feels much like a puzzle, the pieces of which are only beginning to hint at a picture. And I haven’t even mentioned all the Korean imagery, so focused was I on the Christian stuff. You know you’ve read a good book when you’re still thinking about it weeks later!

*Alex Chee is a writer I’ve become acquianted with on Twitter, and this is a beautiful book I might never have read if I hadn’t met its author there.


About Marta Rose

I am a writer and a homemaker living in Philadelphia with my wife Julie and our children, Trixie and Micah.
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