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Posted March 15, 2011
Accomplished Canadian poet Steve Noyes' first novel is exquisitely lyrical and perceptively realized. He uses language like a composer working in Sonata form - at times deftly descriptive, emotionally radiant and attuned to the nuances of cultural cross-talk, but in other passages he will create a rift suffused with melancholy and memory, then break into a glissando of wry observation, then return to his themes of longing, love and loss. Few contemporary novels uncover the landmines buried in such relationships with such clarity. Jeff Mott is nearly every middle age foreign devil in China: curious and respectful, but often bewildered by the culture; smitten by the exotic, though mystifying, raven-haired beauties; torn by the past he cannot escape, but paralyzed by the Kafkaesque society he cannot penetrate. He realizes as he tells his pre-teen daughter that the Chinese they see back home are just as Canadian as they, but he and the other Westerners trying to blend into Chinese life will never be anything but lao wai - outsiders. This conundrum of learning the language and customs, even envisioning his new life entwined with a young woman, while always being an outsider, tears Jeff in several directions. First, though his daughter is his emotional anchor, unresolved issues intensified by 3,000 miles of separation do not make building that bond easy. She needs him. He is conflicted by fatherly responsibility, but also by his growing entanglement with Bian Fu, the Chinese woman who seems to embody for him both the allure and frustration of China. To Noyes' credit, he does not resolve Jeff's issues easily, if at all. Bian Fu is desirable; she hides deep secrets that belie the intimacy Jeff craves; she is as seductive as any siren who would shipwreck his life on the rocks of her needs. Early on the reader senses the relationship is doomed. Counterpoint to Bian Fu are his students who genuinely like Jeff, but also matter-of-factly admit they want to learn English so as to eventually dominate all those not Chinese. Other Western teachers are less principled than Jeff: either they remain in their ex-pat enclaves and teach as they must, or they sexually educate their female students who are naïve enough to expect such behavior as part of the social contract between East and West. At the core of It Is Just That Your House Is So Far Away, is perhaps what mythologist Robert Graves called the insatiable yearning for the muse, if creativity is viewed, in essence, as a procreative act between the poet and his psycho-sexual anima. For Noyes, that union is possible only by abandoning his mistress' charms for his daughter's innocence - the one fraught with lies and future regrets, the other possibility and expectation. The poet's bad luck can be transformed into his good luck - art born of pain and deep sorrow. As novelist, Noyes writes as a poet, and this to his credit. He is judicious to not over-write the lyricism; his depictions of ancient culture inhabiting modern China are intelligent and thoughtful. Inevitably compelling, the book needs a cinematic treatment in the hands of a skillful bi-coastal filmmaker like an Ang Lee or Jia Zhangke.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.