Author Tags: Fiction
Peggy Herring's novel This Innocent Corner (Oolichan 2010) takes the reader from Bangladesh on the brink of its war of independence in the early 1970s to the shores of Salt Spring Island thirty years later. The story follows the life of Robin Rowe who, as an exchange student visiting what was then East Pakistan, committed a well-intentioned act that resulted in devastating consequences.
Peggy Herring has lived in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Japan working as a journalist, international development consultant and volunteer, and teacher. Her short fiction appears in literary journals and anthologies in Canada and India.
The Innocent Corner
from BCBW 2011
by Cherie Thiessen
Mix a little meddling with a whole lot of naiveté and you can have a dangerous concoction. If this is the lesson Peggy Herring wants us to learn, it’s well-illustrated in the character of a 20-year-old American exchange student, Robin Rowe, who is studying in East Pakistan.
It’s 1970, and there’s social unrest in Dhaka. East Pakistan is about to erupt and eventually reform itself into the world’s 139th country—Bangladesh. Its genocidal struggle for independence has been called one of the shortest and bloodiest wars of modern times.
Robin has been boarding in Dhaka with the wealthy Chowdhury family, becoming fast friends with their daughter, Luna, rapidly estranging herself from the fiery son, Hasan, and romantically involving herself with his friend, Shaheed.
Fresh from the United States, Robin holds firm to her immature ideals, devoid of cultural sensitivity. She encourages Luna to run away with her lover to avoid an arranged marriage, and motivates Shaheed to involve himself in a political turmoil he was inclined to avoid.
She refuses to listen to the Chowdhury’s urgings to leave their increasingly violent country, postponing a trip to the airport until she puts not only Hasan in danger, but the runaway lovers, as well. Worse, she deliberately accuses an innocent servant of theft, reminiscent of Hosseini’s Kite Runner.
There’s a great deal more to this story, but I can’t give it all away. Once she’s safely back in America, Robin still doesn’t seem to get it. She waits for letters from Luna and the Chowdhury household, seemingly surprised when no communication from them is forthcoming.
By the time Robin returns to Dhaka thirty years later, in order to give a presentation at the invitation of the Bangla-American Women’s Friendship Society, she still has her head in the sand. Confronted by a furious Hasan in the audience, she abandons her talk and then casually goes off to find her host family with still no apparent idea of the reception she’ll get.
Alternating between East Pakistan then and Bangladesh now, sometimes awkwardly, this story fills in gaps in Robin’s personal history: Her return to the States, her falling in love with a draft dodger while on vacation in Canada, her subsequent life in Vancouver, the birth of her daughter, widowhood at 39, a move to Salt Spring Island, and a subsequent estrangement from her daughter.
But there are some storytelling holes that left me frustrated with the plot. (I still don’t know, for example, what happened to those lovers.)
Setting fiction in a politically volatile country at a significant moment in history is a good idea, and Herring has a good ear for dialogue, but making Robin so unattractively naïve proves alienating. It would take just a few tweaks here and there to give us a narrator we want to hang out with.