Happy January. To start the new year I will finish a task from the old year and give you my thoughts about The Search for Jewel Island by R.N. Jackson (2020). The review by David Banks that I cited in my previous post, Finally, Fully Fall, does a wonderful job of outlining the story about Esta, a teenage girl trying to work through some atypical troubles in her 1986 British village.
Usually my aim with reviews on this blog is to point out the Buddhist narrative threads in a piece of fiction, because intertextuality is a the biggest indicator for labeling a work of fiction Buddhist. In Jackson’s novel, the plot is driven by the Buddhist notion of two truths: the conventional truth that we know and live daily (Skt. saṁvṛti), and the ultimate truth that can be realized through the Buddhadharma (Skt. paramārtha). In the story there are two planes of existence that Esta and friends experience: one is the reality they are used to, and the other is akin to the Buddhist Wheel of Life, complete with Mt. Meru, Mara and other demons. Much of the action of the novel takes place in this alternative plane of existence, and Esta questions her own sanity because of it. Eventually she comes to accept that there can be alternate planes of existence, and that these planes can influence one another. So without really learning much about Vajrayana Buddhism, Esta experiences the Buddhist worldview in a wholly embodied way. Jackson also uses the ritual objects of bell (representing wisdom) and dorje (a vajra, representing method) and Buddhist lamas and novices to move his story forward and propel Esta further into the world of Vajrayana Buddhism. Also, a Buddhist lama character cites a sūtra . . . so yes, this novel is definitely intertextual and contains elements of Buddhist worldviews and sacred texts.
I will be honest. I grappled with this review. I was challenged to suspend my disbelief for parts of the novel, probably because I did not resonate with the main character, Esta. She didn’t ask the questions I would have asked, and she didn’t seek the resources I would have gone to for information (when I was around her age in the year 1986). So I had to take a step back from my initial dislike and really try to put myself in the shoes of the character as she was written, try to see things from her perspective. Esta is not a thinker, she is a doer. That is, the character does not live her life in her mind, but through her actions. Esta’s character was drawn to the dorje in the story – she resonated with method, action, embodiment. I am the opposite of Esta – a thinker who has to make great effort to get outside of her head. I decided to stop reading Esta’s story through my own entrenched perspective when I recalled something that David Loy wrote about story: “A story is a point of view. There is no perspectiveless perspective. There is no way to escape perspectives except by multiplying them” David Loy, The World is Made of Stories (2010) p. 11. I worked at shifting my perspective to make room for Esta’s.
Approaching Buddhist fiction the way that I do is sometimes a detractor from the enjoyment of a reading experience. I am always looking for intertextuality. And I’m always weary of Orientalism. This is too easily done in fiction, since Orientalism depends on our tendency to fill the gaps of our knowledge of other peoples with our imaginations. Orientalism as a concept describes how we imagine people from Asia and the “Orient” as inferior, and we do this in various ways. In the case of Vajrayana Buddhisms specifically, usually represented to the West in the form of Tibetan Buddhism, there is a tendency to exoticize and romanticize the idea of Tibetan Buddhism as the means to build a utopia, a Shangri-La. (See Donald S. Lopez, Jr, Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, 2012). So of course my Orientalism radar was on as I read this novel. And when I got to chapter 18, which provided Esta and another character, Simon, with a guided tour of the Wheel of Life, I was looking for exoticization. I was looking for the romanticism of a utopia based on the legend of Shangri-la. But because of Jackson’s careful characterization of Esta, and the context of the story world (chronotope) he created, I learned from Esta the value of being able to shift perspectives. In my estimation, what Jackson managed in this chapter is a remythologization of Vajrayana Buddhist cosmology into his story setting, with the potential for this story to impact the social imaginary of his reading audience, to offer a view of the realm of human existence from a different perspective.
There are more stories planned for Esta, and a free prequel available here: free book offer. If you enjoy young adult literature, The Search for Jewel Island is worth the time it takes to read it. I would be interested to hear about reader reception from the teen demographic.