Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman
I cannot even tell you how absorbed I got in this book … how difficult it was to tear myself away to prepare dinner or get my son from the bus stop. This is simply the most fascinating, compelling, intense travel memoir I’ve ever read.
It has everything you look for in a travel memoir: exotic locales, excellent writing, insight and a compelling narrative. Let’s take a look at these elements one by one.
In 1986, Gilman and her college friend Claire embarked on an “around the world” backpacking trip that starts in China, which (as Gilman puts it) “had been open to independent backpackers for roughly ten minutes.”
This is a very Communist China that, at the time, was not yet very modernized. It is also, as Gilman finds out on a return visit 20 years later, a China that no longer exists. Gilman’s account of the difficulty of travel, the incredible bureaucracy, the food, the sights, and the people (often generous to a fault) brings to life a country and a culture that may be a mystery to many Westerners.
Gilman has a sharp wit and a way with words that make this book—which is, at times, as harrowing as any thriller—a pleasure to read. Her self-depreciating and wicked sense of humor grounds the book, and her creative use of metaphors delighted me time and time again. Consider this self-description:
“Most of my time at Brown, I’d felt like geometry: a collection of unlovely, isolated parts that needed to be proven over and over.”
Seriously, how awesome is that metaphor? The book is full of this type of wonderful writing—making the book flow like a stream of crystal clear water. (As you can tell by my seriously lame metaphor just now, it isn’t the easiest thing in the world to come up with apt and creative metaphors.)
In addition, Gilman’s personality comes shining through on every page, and I found her to be winning, hilarious, down-to-earth and just plain awesome. (I’d love to hang out with her some time. I bet she is a hoot.)
I’m thankful that Gilman waited before attempting to write this memoir. The events in the book require a certain type of maturity and hindsight to fully understand and view properly. Had she written this book shortly after the events described, I don’t think it would have been nearly as effective.
With the benefit of 20 years to ponder the events of the trip, Gilman is able to analyze her younger self and the decisions she made with a wisdom that would have been lacking had she written the book in “real-time.”
Thus, we have two Gilmans writing this memoir: the 22-year-old Gilman who experienced the events and brings them to life and the grown-up Gilman who has the wisdom and maturity to understand and comment on her younger self and her experiences.
I’ve read memoirs that lack the introspection and commentary that time can bring, and I think this book benefited tremendously from Gilman’s choice to write the memoir as an adult versus a young adult.
Although this could have been a “two naive American girls traveling in China” travel narrative (and you almost wish it could have been), Gilman and Claire’s journey takes a bizarre and riveting turn when Claire begins to unravel psychologically.
As little oddities begin to crop up (such as Claire’s insistence that she is writing a “world curriculum” and must go by herself to do research and make contacts), both the reader and the grown-up Gilman can see that the warning signs were there from the start.
But Gilman’s analysis and reasoning on why these warning signs don’t register until it is too late are compelling and reasonable. I could totally see my 20-year-old self making the same decisions and getting into the same harrowing situations in which Gilman finds herself at the end of the book.
The last third of the book was as suspenseful, harrowing and riveting as any thriller I’ve ever read. My pulse and anxiety level were rising with each new development, and I couldn’t imagine experiencing this kind of nightmare myself. Yet, as Gilman writes in the epilogue, it was this experience that helped shape her into the woman she is today.
The bottom line is that this book is simply the best memoir and travel narrative I’ve ever read. I simply can’t recommend it enough. I’m usually pretty stingy with my stars, but I’m giving this one 5 stars without hesitation. Make time for it … you’ll be glad you did.
Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is an excellent piece of writing that tells a riveting and compelling story that has something important to say about life, love, and being a citizen of the world. Despite Gilman’s often nightmarish experiences, it will make you wish you’d taken that backpacking trip you always said you would but never quite got around to doing.