Reminiscent of the tone and atmosphere of Somerset Maugham and George Orwell’s Asia-set novels, Glorious Boy is a Second World War story of adventure and loss, uniquely set in the Andaman Islands, one of India’s farthest flung territories.
The Andaman Islands, largely populated by indigenous tribes, served Britain as a penal colony for Indian and Burmese political dissidents. The history of the fascinating archipelago in the Bay of Bengal comes alive in Aimee Liu’s new novel. Claire and Shep are newlyweds who move to the Andaman Islands soon after they meet and marry. It’s 1936: Claire is a budding American anthropologist; Shep is British and posted to the Andaman Islands as the Civil Surgeon. Claire has grand plans to study the indigenous Biya people (based, the author writes in a note, on the Aka-Bea tribe), and leaves the comforts of her new home for weeks on end for research in the interior. Shep is also a botanist and studies the medicinal benefits of the many varieties of orchids in the Andaman archipelago. The setting of the story is as remarkable as the plot.
A hornbill, like some prehistoric aviator, sailed beneath the canopy. A stream materialized to their right. Emerald green monitor lizards followed their progress, and toads the size of rabbits scuttled between the fern fronds. Gradually, as their eyes adjusted to the viscous light, they began to spot the orchids high in the branches or clinging to trunks, trailing plumes or shooting small explosions of color. Once Shep and Claire got the hang of it, as if mastering a child’s game of hidden pictures, they saw them everywhere.
Claire quickly becomes pregnant. She gives birth to a baby boy they name Ty. Colonials, they employ a staff of servants, including a Bengali couple with a young daughter named Naila. Ty does not bond very well with either parent, and seems to only calm in the hands of Naila, eight years his senior. As Ty grows into a toddler, he does not speak. He only communicates silently with Naila. Then in 1942, the war heats up and the family’s plan to escape together to Calcutta falls apart.
The war story is fascinating, as Claire develops codes for British intelligence based on the Biya spoken language, a language the Japanese occupiers of the Andamans do not know (an episode possibly based on the American use of Navaho “code-talkers” in their Pacific War). Liu writes in detail about British intelligence operations regarding Japanese military operations in the Andamans. This particular part is based on true events, for a small reconnaissance team indeed returned a year after the Japanese occupied the archipelago. In Glorious Boy, British intelligence is given the additional objective of rescuing family members who hadn’t made it out as well as another British officer, the only British subjects left behind.
Like Orwell and Maugham, Liu weaves politics into the story. In contrast to the British that killed many of the indigenous tribes in the Andamans, she creates Claire and Shep as respectful of the people on whose land they are living.
They had done it. They had entered a time capsule by leaving almost everything familiar behind and discovered a reality so strange and new yet ancient that it made every nerve in her body quiver. Except, of course, that they hadn’t actually discovered anything. They Biya had been living here all along. She and Shep were simply catching up.
The ethnic make-up of the Andamans was a result of colonial British penal policy:
… the town of Port Blair was populated by Burmese and Indian convicts who’d been released for good behavior. These former prisoners had to remain in the Andamans but were otherwise free to marry or import their wives and children. They’d built settlements along the coast, started farms and business. Many chose to work as servants for the civilian and military administrators.
When the Japanese take the islands in 1942, many of the Indian and Burmese residents welcome the new occupiers, who had come with promises to build an Asia for Asians. The amity doesn’t last long and the Indian, Burmese, and indigenous people take great risks to oppose the Japanese as the war progresses. A couple years after the war, the Andaman Islands are handed over to a new colonial power, India.
Channeling some past classics also skeptical of the colonial enterprise, Glorious Boy stands out from the crowded shelves of World War II literature by immersing the reader in one of the remoter theatres of the Asian half of the War.