Richard Morais’ first novel, The 100-Foot Journey, took his young hero from India to France on a quest for 3-Star Michelin glory. His latest novel is about a Buddhist monk who leaves his tranquil Japanese life for Brooklyn, New York.
Morais likes moving his characters out of their comfort zones. Forcing them to explore (and eventually embrace) alien cultures. He has a definite talent for evoking a place – his descriptions of Japan in Buddhaland Brooklyn resonate like watercolors painted on silk panels. In The 100-Foot Journey his version of the French alps could easily have been featured in a travel magazine. The beautiful flaw in Morais’ vision is that he conjures places too perfect to exist. Lush landscapes are inevitably contrasted against grey urban environments. His heroes always display a certain amount of detachment from everything around them (whether consciously or not).
Buddhaland Brooklyn is narrated by Seido Oda. Shortly after entering the village monastery as a small boy his family is killed in a fire. It is the defining moment of his life. The happiest memories from his childhood are of fishing with his beloved elder brother, and he’s wracked by guilt over this same brother’s death. Because being chosen to enter the temple was an honor usually reserved for the eldest son. Instead Seido Oda was selected – the middle son – a decision made by their father that determined both his and his brother’s fates.
Daiki removed two Tenkara fly rods from our backpack. There was no reel, just a leader and line attached directly to the end of the bamboo rod. At first my brother did not fish, just stood over me, patiently whipping the rod back and forth, trying to show me how to dance the fly on the river’s surface. I grew bored and hungry and crossly told him to catch us a fish.
My brother stood at the top of the sandbar and cast his fly to a rock in the middle of the current, dappled the dressed hook. The waterfall cascaded behind him, and I can still see his outline against this white wall, a silhouette of a boy in bas-relief.
His fly swirled slowly in the eddy behind a rock, and a shadow rose lightning-quick from the water’s depths. Onii-san and I simultaneously cried, “Aieee!” as the line went tight and the water erupted in the boil of a thrashing fish.
“Two-kilo fish,” he yelled.
Move forward 20-years and Oda is still at the monastery, teaching painting to the young acolytes. Never having fully recovered from his childhood trauma, Oda has increasingly isolated himself. Inexplicably, and much against this unlikely hero’s will, he is given a task by a close friend who has risen in the temple ranks. His mission is to oversee the building of a temple in America and to guide the growing New York community in the tenets of his faith. He accepts and much of what follows is a portrait of the collision (and blending) of these two cultures. It’s also the story of discovering one’s place in the world.
Which sounds a little like The Hundred-Foot Journey. In many ways this new book is structured like Morais’ debut novel. The hero suffers a traumatic loss as a child and as a result is uprooted from the world he grew up in. He is educated in a new environment – one he is never fully comfortable in – and then goes out on his own. Eventually, after trial & error, he discovers his place in the world and reconciles with his past. Both books are beautifully written. The secondary characters are fully realized and the journey to enlightenment is full of entertaining detours. Yet for entirely different reasons, both protagonists have rich interior lives that are much more vivid and vibrant than their exterior lives. On the outside they come across as wooden; modern-day Candides in that they are unequipped to deal with the worlds into which they have been immersed. These similarities – and the resulting lack of discovery for the reader – made Buddhaland Brooklyn a bit difficult to get through. The high quality of Morais’ prose hasn’t changed. Unfortunately, with the exception of the outer trappings of geography and culture, neither has the story.
Publisher: Scribner, New York (2012)
ISBN: 978 1 4516 6922 0