Book Review: Miss Burma by Charmaine Cragg

Miss Burma – Charmaine Cragg (Grove Press, 2017)

My reading of Miss Burma suffered initially from blurb inaccuracy. Which is to say that the book the front flaps describe is not the book as it exists. The book’s own blurb told me this was the story of Louisa, the first Miss Burma, navigating a country at the beginning of the world’s longest civil war. It turns out that this is only one portion of the book. Fortunately, the book is still very interesting (perhaps even more interesting) but I read a good portion of it before I realized this was the novel itself and not just an introductory backstory.

The story isn’t just about Louisa, it’s about her family. Her Jewish father, Benny, living in Burma, marrying – almost a woman – her mother Khin, a member of the Karen people, one of the many minority groups that exist in Burma.

I know very little of the history of the country now known as Myanmar so the book was illuminating as Craig explores the complicated dynamics of the varying tribes within its borders and it’s equally complicated relationship with the British Empire. Benny and Khin meet and are married before World War II. They don’t speak each other’s languages and they don’t know each other at all. The values of loyalty and trust are repeating themes throughout the novel and we see the many ways that Benny and Khin remain loyal (or not) to one another and how trust erodes or is destroyed.

The war complicates their lives even more, each of them a hated minority, and they are separated throughout much of it. Each undergoes deep trauma and the divides between them deepen, even as they attempt to rebuild after the war ends. Prosperity after World War II is only a brief respite before the Burmese Civil War begins though.

It is here that Louisa steps to the forefront. The eldest daughter, a beautiful teenager, she is thrust into the spotlight of beauty pageants and film. Uncertain about her identity as a minority, as a mixed-race young woman, she is used and taken advantage of by more than one side, including her own parents.

While the book is fiction, it’s actually based on the author’s own family. Her mother was Louisa, the first Miss Burma who later became an influential figure among the Karens and in the civil war. It’s impossible to say where the line between fiction and truth is, especially as Craig delves deep into the hidden traumas and unspoken beliefs and desires of these characters. As it is, the story is compelling and very readable. If anything, Craig attempts to take on too much, spreading her net too far and attempting to capture almost a century’s worth of history. She makes the same attempts with her characters – attempting to delve as deep as possible into as many of them as possible. And while this makes them feel more real and more sympathetic it also frequently left me unsure of where to look. There are a lot of stories contained here and while they’re all fascinating, they perhaps should have been weighed differently.

Overall though, I really enjoyed Miss Burma and I appreciated the light it shone on this small country’s complicated history.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Miss Burma by Charmaine Cragg”

    1. In the end, I still enjoyed the book but it definitely changed the way I read it. Sometimes it seems like book blurbs are written by people who haven’t read the book!

  1. Having worked in publishing, I can confirm that happens frequently-blurbs written by people who haven’t read the book! (sigh)

    This does sound interesting though, especially because the author is writing about someone (for the most part) from her family-it lends a voice of authenticity for sure.

    1. Yes, the true story aspect lends an interesting angle to the whole thing. Obviously there are reasons the author chose to tell the story via fiction rather than memoir but from what I can tell, there’s quite a bit of truth in here too.

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