The End of Peril, the End of Enmity, the End of Strife, a Haven
By Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint
Reviewed by Mai Nardone
There are no names in Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint's new novel, The End of Peril, the End of Enmity, the End of Strife, a Haven. By forgoing names, the novel resists an easy grafting of a migrant story, an exile's story—it exists outside of context. This quality contrasts the book's characters, who, lacking names, must define themselves by their context: societal roles (mother, daughter, king's men), history (a war, an evacuation), and place.
The novel's narrator is poised between such markers, hesitating to make a decision for fear it will preclude other possibilities. "There is so much to choose, to give, and by giving, to take away," she says. She's in limbo between two cities, the harbor city of the present and the domed city of her past. She's between her roles as a daughter and a mother, and between the side of the enemy and the side of the king's men in a war that drove her family to the harbor city, the name of which means the end of peril, the end of enmity, the end of strife. The city's a haven, we're told, but not for her. She's been stranded there by history, and is, as her mother accuses her, "restless, a hungry ghost."
At the center of her current restlessness is a baby. It's not the narrator's baby, but it is in her care. The baby, too, is waiting between defined states. "I have not yet chosen a name for the baby. I have not yet chosen a gender," the narrator says. If decisions preclude some endings, we expect them to also result in others. The story therefore remains stalled in the purgatory of the harbor city until final decisions are made. Myint skillfully maneuvers the reader into a state of anticipation. We anticipate, as the narrator does, the mother's death or the baby's definition.
The narrator's own transience is something we get through memory: she shuttles us between the present and an alluring past. The past is also another place, the domed city, which we learn is an artificially controlled society, designed by the narrator's "father's father." In the domed city, people don't seem to die and the trees have been biochemically engineered to grow faster, stranger. The baby comes from the domed city. The baby's a seed of what that domed society wanted, some utopian vision, and it survived that city's breach and ruin. It becomes the narrator's mission to find a new place for the baby. If the baby can survive, her thinking goes, perhaps the old vision can too.
Part of the characters' inabilities to settle into the present is due to the fact that each one of them is haunted by the past. The mother is haunted by her younger self, which is stunningly captured in a description of her earlier, photographed version looking "radiant, glowing like an apparition, for the beauty of the dead is always eternal and transcendent, while the living decompose." The narrator is haunted by another, a girl she's left behind. The novel deftly stretches the mother and daughter between the places, a tension heightened in the narrator's case because her father's side is descended from the enemy. "In the domed city," she tells us, "my body was the spoils of war and in the harbor city, my body is the shame of war. I am a child of violence."
When the present tension rises, the narrator deviates into reverie, the surreal and enchanting story of a locked-away princess that the narrator's father, who died back in the domed city, told her when she was young. As the novel's pressure continues to build, the prose stretches its realist confines and scenes begin to stray into the surreal territory of these legends. Myint's language does this too, struggling as if it is under pressure to contain itself. It accumulates, brims, and finally spills into extravagant and beautiful passages, only to recede and begin accumulating again.
It's appropriate then, that when change comes, it comes as a flood. The world comes undone. The narrator is forced to flee the surges with the baby. The novel's end leaves the reader tethered, circling back on its invented folklore, the image of a collapsed dome, one city in ruins, another in decay, everywhere "wild grass dancing over the sand. Grass flickering like fire," and surging through it the purging waters.
"The renewal has finally come," the narrator tells us. The cleansing makes the ground fertile for the baby, perhaps, but it remains unresolved whether the change can save the narrator, who's also tethered, in her case by a lifeline traced out on her palm by her mother, a line that coils back to an abandoned city, and a girl left behind.