Book Review: Behold the Many by Lois-Ann Yamanaka


Rating: B/  Behold the Many is kind of a strange book, and one that is hard to summarize and describe, but I’ll try my best to put my feelings about this novel into words. I had never heard of it when I picked it up but I was immediately sucked in by the beautiful cover art, featuring an a black-and-white picture of an innocent-looking Asian girl overlaid with colorful flowers. The image, much like many examples of cover art on the front of novels, has very little to do with the actual story, seeming in this case to have been randomly picked out with little correlation with the plot itself.

Make no mistake; this is a dark, dark book. Every time the main characters get a little bit of hope and happiness, it is destroyed by another overwhelmingly tragic event. The setting is Hawaii in the early twentieth century. We know right off that a young woman has been raped and murdered, but the then novel jumps back to the childhood of the girl’s mother.

Anah, the girl who will grow up to be the rape and murder victim’s mother, lives in a camp for laborers pressed under the thumb by the white colonists who have made their home there. She shares meager accommodations with her two younger sisters Aki and Leah, her older brothers Charles and Thomas, and her parents. Her father is a all-around horrible person who is both sexually and physically abusive toward Anah, and her sisters and mother are terrified of him.

Thomas is not the sharpest crayon in the box and has inherited the cruel and sadistic qualities of his father, but Charles loves and protects her, sleeping in her bed at night to defend her against her father’s nightly assaults. When Anah and her sisters contract tuberculosis, they are sent to a sanatorium frequented by the most horrid nun since Geraldine McEwan’s character in The Magdalene Sisters.

Both Leah and Aki die of consumption before they get the chance to leave the sanitorium (this is not a spoiler, it is directly mentioned on the dust cover of the book,) and Anah alone lives to adulthood and marries the love of her life, Ezroh. Anah just wants to be reunited with her brother Charles and bury the horrors of her past, but the ghosts of her sisters and a small boy who fell from a tree to his death outside the sanatorium haunt her and curse her womb, resentful of her attempts to move on.

Even though there are ghosts in this book and they are pretty creepy, it would be inaccurate to call it a horror story. I can say that although the book is extremely bleak and disturbing, I also found it to be a page turner. I did find the excessive info dumping in the first few chapters concerning the setting of the book to be a little distracting, although I know that the author was trying to do.

Most people are not going to know much about 20th-century colonialism in Hawaii, so Yamanaka wants to fill you in on the basics. Still, the exposition seems a little forced and doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the book. One thing I appreciated about this book was Yamanaka’s beautiful, haunting prose. It’s hard to use repetition in your writing to the right effect, without seeming, well, repetitive, but Yamanaka’s writing has a haunting, almost musical quality to it, which is a little hard to get used to at first, but when you do, it really sucks you in and transports you.

The author also makes the stylistic decision to a kind of stream-of-consciousness mini-chapter from a different character’s perspective after each main chapter. I thought this tended to be very jarring, these excerpts are quite vague and I often wasn’t sure who was talking. The third-person narrative worked much better and the first-person snippets could have been cut out or reworked and actually done the book some good.

I was captivated by this book up until the ending, which I thought was anticlimactic and confusing. Behold the Many is a desperately sad, eerie book which offers very little hope for even the most blameless of it’s characters. It deals with a number of dark subjects, from drug addiction to sexual abuse and racism, but the story evolves naturally without seeming overstuffed. The characters are sympathetic, although they do seem at times to be too much of one or the other, good and endlessly well-intentioned or overwhelmingly cruel and evil.

People who don’t like dark and bleak stories should probably stay away from this one, but I appreciated the beauty and clarity of the prose and the fascinating yet disturbing narrative. There were certain aspects of the novel that were puzzling and frustrating for me (why is the rape and murder of one of Anah’s daughters focused on in great detail, while the assault of her other, mentally handicapped daughter is considered barely worth mentioning?,) and there were a couple of scenes where I legitimately wasn’t sure what was going on.

I will say that Behold the Many wasn’t as confusing as I thought it might be when I adjusted to the writing style. The child spirits are creepy, the spirits of Anah’s miscarried fetuses even more so,but it’s impossible not to feel for them, even the vicious poltergeist-like ghost of Anah’s strong-willed younger sister, Aki. I always thought Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter books had one of the most horrid fates imaginable, dying as a angst-ridden pre-teen and being stuck in that kind of hellish limbo as a spirit, never progressing past the stage of pimples and awkward crushes.

Is it any wonder than Aki and the other spirits hate the living, Aki’s sister Anah in particular? The mix of the traditionalism of the natives and the Christianity the missionaries bring across the ocean with them is one of the book’s strongest elements. The idea of balancing the superstition of your ancestors with Christianity/Catholicism is interesting to me. The missionaries who set out to save the ‘savages’ try to force their beliefs on them, and for the most part,they are successful. But they can’t seem to entirely banish the old ways.

The more books like this I read, the more I realize how much we white people have screwed things up. Not all the minorities in this book are good, and not all the white people are bad. I appreciated that. But without bashing us over the head with it, Lois-Ann Yamanaka portrays a land being tremulously shaped by colonialism. And she tells an intricate, fascinating story in the process, featuring three sisters’ struggle at the hands of widespread injustice as well as the abuse that goes on at home.

Although I was not familiar with this book initially, I’m glad to have found it and taken the time to read it. It’s a book which should have gotten more attention than it did, and I’m not entirely sure why it’s not more well-known. I imagine a lot of research went into making Behold the Many plausible, and I unexpectedly found myself really enjoying the writing style (the first time I tried to read it, I got confused and put it down a few pages in.) A more literary book like this requires a bit more concentration than your average bestseller, but I think that the added attention I put into reading it was worth it; and I hope you do, too.

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