Author: Alan Chin
Reviewer: Cole at Jessewave Reviews
Genre: Contemporary M/M
Length: Novel (274 pdf pages)
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
Review Summary: Even though the romance element is barely there, like all of Alan Chin’s books, this is a beautifully written novel about a lost, gay man, finding his way back to his roots and discovering the family that he never knew he had.
While back in the West to attend his grandmother’s funeral, Cord Bridger uncovers two shocking revelations: his grandmother had a lesbian lover named Juanita, and he has a teenaged son named Kalin. Fate brings all three together, but to preserve his new family, Cord must leave his safe life in New York City behind to carve a living from the harsh ranch lands of Nevada.
To forge a life with Juanita and Kalin, Cord must first discover the dark secret burning a hole in Kalin’s heart. With the help of Tomeo, a handsome Japanese veterinarian, Cord travels a gut-wrenching road of triumphs and tragedies to insure his son will survive the sinister violence of his past. But as Tomeo becomes more than just a helpful friend to Cord, a new set of problems arise between Cord and Kalin that may threaten the happiness of them all.
Cord is a gifted pianist that has allowed fear to end his stage career. Instead, he uses the talent that he has, and his absolute perfect pitch, to do the one job that he can — tuning pianos. Though he may be the most prestigious piano tuner in the world, as he tunes the hundred-thousand dollar Steinway pianos that make their way to playhouses around the world, he still feels that he’s given up on his talent. This, and the breakneck pace of New York City, leads him deeper into a spiraling depression as he leaves his apartment less and less — until the only place he goes is work. His boyfriend of several years is a social butterfly, and as they drift apart, two startling things happen: he sees his boyfriend, Cameron, is cheating on him, and he finds out that the grandmother who raised him, Cora, has died. Now, he has to travel to the Bitter Water, the ranch he grew up on, to bury Cora and settle the estate. Only, when he returns, he learns of his grandmother’s parter, Juanita, and that he has a son of his own, Kalin.
Kalin is 15 years old, the son of Jesse, Cord’s high school best friend and one time girlfriend. He has a younger brother, Jem, born of Jesse’s latest husband, that he cares for and watches over. His mother’s drug addiction, money squandering, and habit of moving from crime boss to pedophile in order to support her drug habit means that Kalin has gotten the brunt of the hatred and abuse from his many pseudo-fathers. Jem sleeps under his bed and Kalin with a baseball bat and they speak to each other in a secret language. But the one man he hates more than all of them is his father, whom he has never met, but who ran out on his mother and left him to deal with everything. And now, his mother is taking him to his grandmother’s funeral to meet him. But Kalin doesn’t know everything about Cord, just as Cord doesn’t know anything about having a son. When Cord is forced to take care of Kalin and Jem for the summer, he needs all the help he can get — from Juanita, the bruja, who needs someone to care for now that her partner has died, to Tomeo, a local Japanese veterinarian, who is peaceful and kind, and offers love and advice from his Buddhist teachings. They make a strange family, but one that grows to love and understand each other, but not without more than their fair share of troubles and terrible secrets.
I have only read one other book by Alan Chin, Island Song, but I can safely say that he writes some of the most beautiful books that I have ever read. His prose is lyrical and he has a way of showcasing his characters so that they’re cut open on the table, all of their inner self laid out bare for us to see. In fact, the title of this book portrays that a bit and is alluded to once Cord returns to the Bitter Water. He sees a model of a butterfly pinned to a board and he thinks that that is the perfect metaphor for how he feels — caught, trapped, and pinned down for everyone to see. This is primarily a novel about family, and thought there is a romance element, between Cord and Tomeo, it is only lightly portrayed. It is often in the background, and only a couple of times throughout the novel is it given time on the page. Even then, it is mostly shown as a meeting of minds — and though Cord and Tomeo do end up together playing father to Kalin and Jem, there are only one or two physical scene between them. For most of the story, Tomeo is Cord’s mentor, or at least a rock to hold tight to in the swift current. Tomeo is Buddhist, and there is always and underlying thread to the story of Cord trying to understand his life through the tenets that Tomeo lives by, most notably the idea that unhappiness in life is attributed to the human’s need to covet the constancy of things, in the midst of things that are always changing. Also, as someone who has grown up in a town like the town in this novel, I can attest to the hostile feeling that Cord feels as a gay man here. Part of this is because the town think’s he’s a deadbeat father, no matter that he never knew he had a son, but the tone of the novel was very well done. Also, just like the idea of Buddhism in the novel, Juanita, who Kalin and Jem believe to be a bruja, is the personification of a connection to life and nature. Here is a paragraph about Juanita that shows the beauty of the writing as well:
Juanita had taped collages of Jem’s crayon pictures on every wall: smiling suns, dancing dogs, turquoise lizards whispering in a boy’s ear, swarms of butterflies flaunting rainbow-colored wings. They had transformed the bleak kitchen into a vivid, happy space. These wild pictures hadn’t come from Jem’s imagination, but rather from Juanita. Every night they gathered at the fireplace and she told the boys folktales while Cord, half-listening, played the piano. She spun her tales like a master weaver fabricating gold-threaded cloth. The power of her narration lay in the tempo of her words, the inflection of her voice, and her well-timed pauses. Her tales were of another reality—people who turned into crows as the moon rose, coyotes who spoke Spanish and danced the rumba, lizards who slithered onto your shoulder and whispered secrets into your ear. Her stories described the mysterious unseen powers she claimed surrounded them all. All those colorful tales found their way into Jem’s drawings.
Later in the story, there is a scene where Cord looks up to the boys’ treehouse and he sees Jem calling butterflies. Mystified that the boy believed Juanita was telling the truth about calling animals, he watches in wonder as butterflies swarm from all around, alighting on Jem’s head and arms. I felt like this was a metaphor for Cord, that in getting to know his family and making a new life for himself, the pins had been pulled out of his wings and he was no longer a trapped insect on display.
For the majority of the novel, the narration is from the POV of the youngest of the characters, Jem. I found this strange, and it wasn’t until later in the story that I started to understand why Alan Chin might have written this way. Jem is certainly not a typical little boy. In many ways he is, but he has certainly had a difficult life. In fact, almost all of the characters in this story have had a hard life, and I realized while reading, that even though he has witnessed some terrible things, Jem is the only character who hasn’t yet lost his innocence. He, like all children, have a way of looking at the world that cuts through all of the chatter and nonsense that adults see, and gets right to the heart of the matter. He sees people for who they are, not what they are, merely from the way they act in his presence. And it seems that he is also almost always the fly on the wall, only a semi-participant of the heavy plot and emotions. Also, I thought that Alan Chin did an amazing job of narrating from the POV of a child, which, when you think of it, must be one of the hardest things to write. It isn’t just the speech and mannerisms that make a child, but the rationale and logic of a child that are fundamentally different.
For the most part, I was extraordinarily pleased with this novel. But, I would have loved more of the romance story between Cord and Tomeo. It is possible that with all of the outside influences on their family and the emergence of a major threat on the family that Alan Chin thought he might not have room for this. Or maybe, he didn’t see it as the fundamental meaning of the story, of which Cord making a family with his children is the top priority. I still would have loved more between Cord and Tomeo, who were very sweet to each other. I especially loved Tomeo, who was a calming influence to Cord. I also wondered near the end of the novel about Jesse having withdrawals, which was never mentioned after her drugs were gone. However, this was still a beautifully rendered story that I grew to love, just as all of his stories seem to be.
Content Warning: There is mention of repeated off-page child rape and the death of a minor character in the end of this book. As to the first, there is barely any detail and it explains a lot of the distrust and hate that Kalin has for gay men. As to the second, I found the death a fitting end for the character. That sounds spiteful on my part, I know, but the death is an honorable one for an honorable character. I wholeheartedly recommend this book, though I have heard many say that this is not their favorite of Alan Chin’s books. Of his books that I have read, Eastern Religion and Mysticism tend to be underlying topics within his stories, so those who are interested in that will like his stories. I didn’t find the topic of Buddhism to be overwhelming here, as it was a minor part of the book, simply to explain the way Tomeo, and in growing instances, Cord, envision the world around them. I eagerly await whatever is coming next from Mr. Chin. Definitely Recommended.