Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya Hardcover – Jan 1 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Novelist Kincaid tells of her journey into the foothills of the Himalayas in search of rare plants to bring home to her Vermont garden. Much of the book feels repetitive, in an almost meditative way, as the author uses plain yet lyrical language to record the quotidian details of life in the wilderness. For Kincaid, everything on this trip—eating, sleeping, bathing—requires more effort than usual and sometimes even instills anxiety. Kincaid's details of meals and sleepless nights do grow tedious, and it isn't clear if the author is glad she decided to accompany her botanist friends on their trek, considering the constant threat of leeches and, much worse, the not unlikely (as she portrays it) possibility of losing her life at the hands of anti-American Maoist guerrillas ("Nothing could be more disturbing than sleeping in a village under the control of people who may or may not let you live"). Kincaid's fear never abates: "At some point I stopped making a distinction between the Maoists and the leeches." Occasionally, however, she is overcome with the beauty of the night sky, pilgrim destinations such as a sacred lake in Topke Gola, or the abundant flora, particularly "rhododendrons that were not shrubs, but trees thirty feet tall." This book is as much about a place as it is about overcoming fears and embracing the unfamiliar. Photos.
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Kincaid brings her uniquely heightened sensibility and remarkable ability to evoke with equal vividness both inner and outer worlds to a gripping and poetic account of a life-changing plant-hunting expedition in Nepal. Kincaid, whose earlier plant writings are found in My Garden [Book] (1999), hiked in the Himalaya in the company of American plantsman Daniel Hinkley, husband and wife botanists from Wales, Sherpas, a cook, and ornery porters. Preternaturally observant and piquantly candid, she has an extraordinary facility for capturing the moment; for describing how the sky seems domed at high altitudes; how delicious the simplest of food is when living outdoors; how she copes with the horror of a plague of leeches; how being among these mysterious mountains alters her sense of distance, time, life. To add to the physical arduousness and psychological demands of their long trek was the threat of Maoist guerillas, and Kincaid finds herself astonished by and grateful for everything. "Nothing was as I knew it to be," she writes, and that is the sign of a truly momentous journey. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The main thing that struck me about this book is how self-absorbed the author seems to be. By her own admission, she took almost no interest in what was around her unless it was of some use to her, for example, if some particular seeds would grow in her region. While she seems to have a good grasp of Latin plant names, she couldn't learn the actual names of her Nepali porters. Instead she refers to them merely by what role they played in relation to her- the man who prepared her meals was "Cook" and the one who carried her table was "Table". She admits that she didn't bother noting the characteristics of the Nepali people since they couldn't do the same for her. She makes a gross generalization of the people as either looking like they were from the South (India) or the North (Tibet), apparently not having taken the time to learn about the many indigenous Nepalese tribes. As a black woman who was raised in Antigua and now resides in America, I was very surprised at Kincaid's lack of cultural sensitivity toward others and apparent disinterest in the people of Nepal. In addition, in two different places she mentions having a hatred for the Germans and even says "Germans seem to be the one group of people left that can not be liked just because you feel like it".
As a piece of literature, the text is rambling and incohesive. Some sentences seem like they will never end; others left me wondering what she was talking about. She ping-pongs between what she sees and what she feels and then attempts to draw us into her distant memories. Far too much of the book is spent describing what she was thinking and complaining about things. I'm afraid the result is that she seems to be far more engrosed with herself than interested in the amazing places and people she is walking among. This book may better have been described as a personal journal than a travel memoir.
If you are interested in trekking in the Himalaya, read a different book. If gardening and seed-collecting are what you fancy, look somewhere else. However, if you want to get to know Jamaica Kincaid, this just may be the book for you.
Kincaid, living in Vermont but originally from Antigua, is an enthusiastic gardener herself though not a seed collector to the extent of her botanist companions. On occasion, particularly at the beginning, I couldn't help wondering what Kincaid was doing on the expedition other than gathering material for this quirky introspective book. She makes much of missing her thirteen-year old son Harold and keeps calling him on her satellite phone until Sunam, the Sherpa leader, takes it away from her due to the Maoist activity in the area. Also she is acutely aware that most of the seeds collected are not suitable for growing in Vermont and therefore shows little or no enthusiasm for them.
As regards her companions, she mentions them by name but dispenses with detailed description. It's as if they were pale ghosts beavering away in a mystical landscape in their quest for seeds.
To say I didn't care for the book would be wrong, rather, I did enjoy it, but found several sentences repetitive, stumbling, and bordering on the nonsensical. The writing does not flow easily ...
... "Dan said we were too low for finding this; Bleddyn said, yes, but soon we would be." ...
... "It resembled something my children would play with in the bathtub, rounded and dullishly smoothed, like an old-fashioned view of the way things will look in the old-fashioned future, not pointed and harshly shiny like the future I am used to living in now." ...
... "When I told Sunam how touched I was by his presence, this little boy, the same age as my son, carrying sixty-pound loads strapped up on his back, he said of course I would be touched because Jhaba was a Sherpa." ...
... "Now the shield itself was behind me, I could no longer see the mountains that had been the shield of my destination." ...
It's as if this stumbling style mimics Kincaid's stumbling trek ... "That night in the cold dark and snow when I had stumbled into camp, what I had missed seeing growing spectacularly among the boulders hovering above me was the great Rheum nobile, growing solitary, erect, aloof, and stiff like little sentinels."
Despite her off-beat writing style, or because of it, Kincaid succeeds in capturing the mysterious atmosphere of her surroundings and the frustrations of seed/plant collecting combined with the real danger of confronting Maoist guerrillas. A view on another world within a world.
She manages to give an impression of possessing a contrived naivety through her writing style which is simplistic and complex all at the same time. Nevertheless, I'd prefer to have had her participate more and given a gutsier descriptive account of the seed collecting and the people surrounding her.
That's style for you, what gets published and what doesn't. I'd be interested to know how much editing went on. Agents and editors are notorious for cutting and suggesting re-writes for clarity or length. This book is purposely short, by Kincaid's own admission, probably her stylistic view-point won over her editor in previous publications so that aspect was a non-starter in this one.
The goal is to acquire seeds for plants that will survive and thrive in a Vermont garden. The reader feels the author's delight in seeing a flower that's humdrum at home come to full, enormous, technicolor life in a tiny, remote Nepalese village. Even a person whose interest in gardens plummets after sniffs of basil can understand the author's tremendous joy.
Which leaves us with the odd, starting with the stilted syntax. It's part eighteenth century, part Hemingway, part Book of Genesis rewritten into the first person singular. She sems to take contrarian pride in being rather a pill on the trip--continually asking the others in the group, "What is this?", losing interest completely if the answer involves a plant that wouldn't cope in Vermont, and--why not?--a fair amount of whining. If the author regrets taxing her companions so on an already arduous journey she stoically keeps that sorrow to herself.
Then there are the perplexing Where Was the Editor? bits. Once you establish that you're using Fahrenheit there's really no need to add it to every following temperature. She'll repeatedly describe what was for dinner and quickly tell us she didn't eat. And did every night's trip to the bathroom need to be recorded?
Lastly, it isn't a moral stain that the author refers to the Nepalese man who cooks for the group as Cook, or the man who lugs the table and chairs as Table, but man, it sure would have been nice if she could have remembered their names. And as the author doesn't hear the porters' names is she really, truly seeing the Nepalese girls, each one of which she declares beautiful?
None of the apparent cross-cultural hiccups would mind if the trip in and of itself didn't scream of First World class privilege. Despite the loveliness of the idea, aspects of the book come across as just another example of the West's determination to Get What it Wants--be it South American bananas, Iraqi oil, or perhaps the seeds is a lovely flower in the Himalaya.
As I myself had been an inexperienced hiker on a difficult trek, I can understand how the harsh journey can bring out the unpleasant, frustrated and complaining self, and blind one to the surrounding, despite its beauty, but it does feel like the author whines too much (and pees a lot). The writing itself was at times clumsy too, as if mirroring her footsteps, which was a surprise coming from an acclaimed literary.
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