The Nerve

Excerpt from the novel Glorious Boy

“The most memorable and original novel I’ve read in ages.” — Pico Iyer

“For readers who are unafraid to be swept away” — STARRED review in Booklist

“Riveting… a fascinating, irresistible marvel.” — STARRED review, Library Journal

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Photo by Aimee Liu

Glorious Boy is a tale of war and devotion set in India’s remote Andaman Islands before and during WWII. Based on historical events, the story revolves around a young couple, Claire and Shep Durant, who leave all that’s familiar behind as they make a new life for themselves in Port Blair, a tropical penal colony where Indian freedom fighters are exiled from British India.

The nerve, her father had whispered. Another summer, four years earlier.

They were standing in front of Gauguin’s La Orana Maria. Hail Mary. Polynesia, landed in New York City. Claire was in her first year at Barnard then, providing her father with a ready excuse to escape his Depression-soaked law offices in Stamford for the illusory reprieve of Manhattan. The two of them explored museums the way they used to comb the beaches and woods of Connecticut after Robin. For uplift, he would say. Which was a good description of Claire’s response to Gauguin’s sinuous lines, rounded colors, and worshipful gestures, the serenity of the naked boy riding his mother’s shoulder and the quietly mocking reverence of halos on a South Seas Madonna and child. While other museum-goers cleared their throats and muttered about shame, Claire longed to dive into that heat and lust and lose herself.

The painter’s nerve, for her father, involved something else. As a boy, Tyler March would weave baskets out of willow peelings like the Algonquin Indians. Left alone he probably would have become a naturalist. Like Thoreau, or Muir, or, God help me, Mr. Darwin. Instead he became a probate attorney, like his father before him. He used to tell Claire his weakness was his reliance on the helping hand. She never believed him until she saw him in front of that painting, rivers pearling in his sad gray eyes, envy making him hoarse.

She’d heard his longing again in her ear when she repeated the words on her wedding day: I do. But her first view of the Andaman Islands put the lie to her own nerve.

First, a small uninhabitable pincushion of palm trees appeared on the turquoise sea. Then a massive green monolith rose behind it, like a waking dinosaur. The behemoth’s coat of forest green undulated, dense and vast as a creature in its own right — a creature intent on driving the slender white snake of beach back into the ocean. This was North Andaman, the top of the island chain that would terminate for them in the south at Port Blair.

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Photo by Steve Douglas on Unsplash

“There’s no one there,” she said, stunned by the confounding shimmer of beauty, humidity and primeval heat that seemed to pulse from shore.

“No see-ums,” Shep quipped, but his heart wasn’t in it, either.

Claire gripped the bulwark, fighting a spasm of nausea. His arm wound like a question mark around her waist. It didn’t help. Who did they think they were fooling? Both of them, impostors.

Over the next six hours the shoreline remained relentlessly wild. They spotted a couple of isolated coastal villages, but even these looked deserted. Then a distant lighthouse blinked. Atop a bluff beyond, a regimental block of concrete rose, spiked with gleaming antennae.

“There.” Shep looked up from the gazetteer spread-eagled in his palm. Hope and relief cracked his voice as he pointed to the outer bank of Ross Island, their new home.

The hillock stretched like a long green breaker at the entrance to a harbor that abruptly bristled with boats. A mirage is how Claire would record this first impression. A miniature replica of a world she thought she’d left behind. A dark gothic church with a soaring steeple. The semblance of a town square and parade ground. Victorian houses along the ridge, with gabled roofs and wide verandas, pale gingerbread trim. The colonial residents themselves were scarce, but small brown figures in white uniforms appeared and disappeared among the towering shade trees. Their numbers multiplied toward the southern end of the island, where the western architecture yielded to a dark brick scramble of shop houses and the humanity of a bazaar. The Hindu temple on the waterfront resembled a multicolored stack of Life Savers.

The Ross cantonment was the seat of British power for the entire Andaman archipelago, but to reach it, they had first to continue across the harbor to disembark on the “mainland,” where Port Blair proper stretched like a lizard’s claw out of the forest’s interior. There, whitewashed bungalows like those throughout India ranged along the slopes, and high on the lizard’s outmost knuckle stood an imposing fortress with rose-colored crenellations.

“The Cellular Jail,” Shep said.

Claire gazed up at the pink castle walls. Inside — reputedly — the Raj’s most hardened convicts sweltered. By design, the whole port functioned as one vast concentration camp, but since the inmates’ dominant crime was their will to fight for independence, Claire felt far more disgust for their British overlords than she did any fear of the prisoners themselves.

The anxiety playing across Shep’s face told her he’d been dreading this reckoning as much as she’d been refusing to think about it. He was now working for those overlords, after all, and she was their subject by marriage.

“It’s strangely picturesque,” she offered. “Maybe things won’t be so bad.”

As if in confirmation, traveler’s palms waved like giant hands welcoming them to Phoenix Bay Jetty, where the mood seemed downright festive. There, Europeans and Indians and everything in between — soldiers, civilians, and pukka sahibs, barefoot Indian and Burmese women wearing scarlet, turquoise, and canary yellow — called to arriving passengers. Children and pye-dogs scuttled around waiting rickshaws. Cries of Jao! and Boy! skittered across the harbor.

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Photo by Lewis J Goetz on Unsplash

Suddenly the deck tipped, the anchor splashed, and Claire’s gaze was
thrown down and back toward the stern, where a dozen manacled convicts, who must have made the crossing inside the ship’s bowels, stood waiting for a tender to take them ashore. A single voice had begun to chant, “Inquilab Zindabad! Inquilab Zindabad!” The others took it up. Long live the Revolution!

Claire and Shep had heard this and other nationalist slogans rising in the distance and behind closed gates during their week-long stop-over in Calcutta, but this one now was chased by the sickening thwack of wood on flesh and bone. The victims screamed as the others fell silent. A rear gangway lowered. The prisoners shuffled onto the bobbing tender, prodded by their armed guards.

Shep took hold of Claire’s elbow. She heard his voice climb. “Steady on, darling. No apologies, no regrets.” It sounded like a plea.

They took a little wooden ferry back to Ross Island and tried to put the
prisoners’ cries behind them as they walked to the top of the ridge. There they landed in front of the low red gate to the Civil Surgeon’s bungalow. Shep flipped the latch, and they stepped through to a vivid green lawn ringed with coconut palms, birds of paradise, flaming heliconia, and orchids of every description. The bungalow itself had freshly whitewashed walls and a wide triangular red tin roof with gables at either end. A deep columned veranda ran the length of the house, overlooking the sea.

It was late in the afternoon. Thick stripes of jade-green ocean laddered to meet the sky. The air had a queer golden vitality, like jazz music made visible.

“We’re home,” Shep said, as if testing the gods.

“We’re home,” Claire answered, taking his hand.

“Welcome to paradise, my love.”

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Excerpted from Glorious Boy, published by Red Hen Press, Copyright © 2020 by Aimee Liu

Available now at bookshop.org or Amazon or your local bookseller

More information at aimeeliu.net

Written by

Aimee Liu is the bestselling author of the novels Glorious Boy, Flash House, Cloud Mountain, and Face and memoirs Gaining and Solitaire. More@ aimeeliu.net

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