There are books that make you dream. Then there are books that sweep you off your feet and welcome you into a dream.
Reading Sieni A.M.’s second novel, Scar of the Bamboo Leaf, was a little bit like the latter. Regular readers of my reviews will no doubt remember how much I loved her first book, Illumine Her. Although sporting some typical first-time author mistakes, the book made me dream. Sieni surpassed herself with Scar of the Bamboo Leaf, in which she manages to touch the hearts of readers through an honest yet heartwarming story.
When Kiva Mau’s mother wanted to get away from the responsibilities of parenthood, she gave her child to her sister and brother-in-law before heading out for lands unknown. Although Kiva is raised by loving surrogate parents, she carries a constant external reminder of her deep, inner pain, in the form of a limp due to one leg being significantly shorter than the other. But despite the many difficulties she carries, Kiva is a patient, loving, and caring young woman, eager to reach out to others through her love of arts, the foremost being sketching and painting.
Ryler carries scars of his own. Prejudices abound in the small town he lives in, and Ryler dealt with the ignorant and cruel comments in the only way he knows: with his fists. On the cusp of ruining his future prospects for good, his parents send him off to Samoa to a school for troubled teenage boys. One of the school’s classes are with Kiva’s uncle, whom she ends up assisting, her aunt kept from fulfilling her duties because of an injury.
When these two troubled, scarred, and hurting souls meet, they are able to help one another one very small step at a time. This is not your miraculous story in which the characters are completely transformed after a mere day or two. Scar of the Bamboo Leaf spans a number of years during which each character is moulded by the consequences of their actions and under the influence of the relationships in their lives.
The rawness and authenticity of the story are no doubt related to the fact that Sieni pulled inspiration for it from real life, albeit in sometimes completely different places. The character Kiva is inspired in part by someone she met who was born with a deficient length in her leg. And while the art center, Kiva’s sketches and paintings are made up, art does have an important place in Sieni’s own life, and not just because of her writing. An active member of her community, she has both seen and used the power of the arts to bring people together as well.
Samoa is host of a school for troubled boys much like the one Ryler is sent to. The author was able to interview one of the students who, through immersion in the culture of the country, had completely transformed from violent kid to one with insights on life transcending that of other youth his age. As for Ryler and Kiva’s story, Sieni told me that she liked the idea of two flawed characters coming together in their imperfect way and focusing on the way they could arise to meet various challenges.
Hana, Kiva’s cousin, was the most interesting supporting character in the book. Through her, we get to see the way man’s lower nature can take over the higher nature. While Hana’s treatment of Kiva is inspired by her own insecurities, resulting in heart wrenching moments of cruelty, it does not mean that she is a soulless being who cannot change. Sieni also shows us how the higher nature of man can conquer the lower when given the right impetus. And yet again, it isn’t one of those stories in which Hana suddenly becomes perfect. She is laying in the bed she made and reaping the consequences of her actions, which inspire her to slowly make difference decisions. It is a slow and sometimes arduous path, the portrayal of which can be very powerful for readers engaged in their own struggles to control their lower nature. And just like in real life, where mutual support and accompanying are essential to personal spiritual development, Kiva’s understanding towards her cousin becomes ones of the crucial elements that give Hana the space needed to start conquering her lower nature and becoming a better person.
The ending was both beautiful, poetic, and significant, but very difficult to read. And after talking to the author, it seems that it wasn’t much easier to write, either. I was told that she cried her eyes out while writing it for at least a week. I asked her why she would write such an ending, and she confided that she hoped that this unconventional love story ends on an inspiring note through this difficult ending. One thing for sure; although I did not like the ending, it definitely is part of the reason I still can’t stop thinking about this book.
Despite being set in the real world, Scar of the Bamboo Leaf is imbibed with a magic of its own. I read it in two sittings (I couldn’t put it down!) and when I was done, felt like I was wrapped in a cozy, comfortable cocoon. It will not only transport you into a land of luscious vegetation and amazing food, but also will make you think about the relationships that define us and inspire you to both reach out to loved ones struggling as they try to conquer their lower selves, and to take yet another step down the path you yourself are walking.
A must read for the summer of 2014.