EPS Review #204 - Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, by Susan Jane Gilman, Grand Central (Hachette) 2009, 306pp.

I raced through this book. The tale of two fresh young women recently graduated from Brown University with a plan to travel the world, starting in China, naturally appealed to me, both because they were doing it in 1986, only a few years after I did, and because it is always interesting to read what goes through women's minds.

The story is not as in-depth as something like Foreign Babes, because Susan and "Claire" (a pseudonym) only last a few weeks in the country. This is part of the drama: Claire starts losing her mind and flips completely in Yangshuo. It is not really clear why. They had the usual adventures of that time, even staying in ChungKing Mansions and being very fussy about it. (I stayed here the first time I went to HK, and I think I even forced P to stay here when we went as late twenty-somethings. That may be one reason she dislikes the city. I love HK, but I have to admit that a hotel like the Island Shangri-La is more fun for me nowadays.)

Actually, writing 20 years later, Gilman thinks it might have been the anti-malarials that caused the problem. The two had a brush with the Chinese medical system and were horrified by it, and also Gilman believed (a little absurdly?) that if Claire were diagnosed then the Chinese would lock her away. Gilman writes well (Claire is "positively mentholated with energy"), and nicely depicts the emotional topics of travel, like getting fed up with your companion, or needing to escape from a local who has done you one good turn too many. The girly angle encompasses the need to hook up with a manky sailor with tattoos on both bums (who might be the Undresser of the title), and also depending on various rather competent young German guys to help them out at several points.

The part that sticks with you is poor "Claire". Gilman never saw her again after their trip, and adds in the appendix that googling her led to nothing. One wonders if Claire has read the story and what she makes of it. Gilman went back to finish her year of travel and may write about that as well.