Miss Burma is an engrossing and beautiful piece of literary fiction. It is more than that, though. It is the story of author Charmaine Craig’s mother and grandparents, people cursed to live in interesting times. Benny and Khin, her grandparents, are the early focus of the story. He was an Indian-Portuguese Jew born in Rangoon, but raised in Calcutta. She was Karen, one of the repressed ethnic minorities of Burma. He had just returned to Burma when he saw her at a distance, fell in love, and asked to marry her. She agreed, perhaps out of a desire to escape the resentment of her family. They did not speak each other’s language, but they found in each other an escape from loneliness and they found love. However, the habit of not communicating began and in time it overshadowed their marriage.

Their marriage and the lives of their children was contoured by World War II, the Japanese invasion, independence and the years of ethnic conflict and military dictatorship that has gripped Burma ever since. It was only in 2015 that a democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy took power and still the military continues to repress minorities, in particular the Muslim Rohingya. Elections just this month show that peace is fragile.

Miss Burma 1956

This is not a history of Burma, it is the story of Benny and Khin and their daughter Louisa who won Miss Burma 1956 and 1958, the novel opening with her victory. This is very much a story about trust, lack of trust, misplaced trust, trusting the wrong people and not trusting those you love. Again and again, Benny, Khin, and Louisa have to make decisions to trust or not to trust. Not always wisely. Through war, ethnic cleansing, prison, and separation, this story is mainly about love, family and marital love, love as a prison and love as liberation. There is a lot of wisdom here.

Miss Burma is a good book, engrossing and fascinating even before I realized it was about real people. I liked both Khin and Benny a lot, though sometimes I wanted someone to lock them in a room together and not let them out until they talked. Not talking was their problem and with not talking came distrust. Benny was often choosing the worst interpretation, making the cruelest judgments, a reflection of his own shame at what was done to him as a prisoner of the Japanese. If only they would have talked to each other instead of hiding behind shame.

Louisa, too, has to make choices about trust. Perhaps from watching her parents, she made wiser choices. The book ends before the real life Miss Burma moves into an entirely new chapter of her life–leading the Karen resistance. It makes me suspect and hope there will be a sequel.

Craig has tremendous sensitivity to the complex question of why two people can love each other and utterly fail each other. It’s a complex question and one answered well, if painfully by Miss Burma.

Miss Burma will be released May 2nd. I received a e-galley from the publisher through Edelweiss.