Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh is the rare novel that manages to be both delicate and brutal at the same time. The book, Chee’s first, describes the path a young Korean-American boy’s life takes after he is sexually abused as a child.
The story begins when the boy, Fee, is a soprano in a boy’s choir in Maine. The choir director, know to his charges as “Big Eric,” begins molesting the boys. The situation is complicated when Fee’s friend Peter, with whom young Fee is in love, joins the choir. Fee tries to protect his friend, but is unable to. Peter descends into self-destructive behavior and eventually commits suicide, as does another boy in the choir.
The book follows Fee as he gets older and, plagued by guilt, starts to indulge in self-destructive behavior of his own, snorting cocaine and staging various suicide attempts. As he gets older, he takes a job at a school, where he meets a 17-year-old boy who bears a striking resemblance to Peter.
Chee does an excellent job of illustrating how the victims of an abusive situation sometimes see themselves as somehow evil and deserving of punishment. Throughout the book, Fee holds himself responsible for Peter’s death, as their friendship led Peter to join the choir in the first place. The young Fee also draws a parallel between himself and Big Eric. They both like boys, Fee reasons, so that must make them the same. However, he later realizes that Big Eric’s passion is much different than his own, and born out of a desire to do evil.
Chee also cleverly sets up Fee’s relationship with the schoolboy. Without revealing too much, the boy – called Warden – and Fee share a link much deeper than their mutual infatuation.
Though his book deals with child abuse, drug abuse, AIDS, self-immolation, and a host of other unpleasant topics, Chee’s beautiful, fragile prose keeps the novel from ever seeming crude or sordid. He has a gift for beautiful, detailed turns of phrase, as when Fee tells of counting how many times an audience claps after one of the choir’s performances: “I started to count, to know the time it takes for your hands to get sick of each other.”
However, his delicate wordplay and adept use of irony do not make up for some major missteps. One of them is impossible to discuss without revealing a major twist in the story, but let’s just say that it’s fairly implausible that, as Warden’s teacher, Fee wouldn’t have figured out the boy’s secret a lot sooner. Another problem occurs when Chee briefly shifts the focus from Fee – the narrator -- in the second half of the novel and has Warden narrate the story for about 20 pages.
It’s not that Warden doesn’t have an interesting view, or that it isn’t interesting to read about the same incidents recounted through both his and Fee’s eyes. It’s just that it seems odd to tear the point of view away from the main character for such a brief period of time. It would have made more sense if Chee had traded off between the two narrators for most of the novel. But that second quibble is relatively minor. Chee has created a disturbing, thought-provoking novel that raises pertinent questions about how the past affects the future.