A middle-aged and miserable American woman reaches the end of her mental rope and absconds to some foreign or underdeveloped place to find herself—and possibly a mate. This new genre encompasses the wildly popular if dissimilar Eat, Pray, Love and Wild. Add to these a novel, A Well-Tempered Heart by Jan-Philipp Sendker, where the unlikely foreign setting is Myanmar, aka Burma.
Julia (whose surname is not Roberts) is a New York lawyer suffering not from the corresponding neuroses but from an actual possession, by the spirit of a departed Burmese woman, Nu Nu. Thus lost in reincarnation, Julia travels to Burma to learn this woman's story and thereby liberate them both.
This magical realism proves short-lived, as Julia confronts the reality of Burma under its imperishable military regime. The book mainly concerns itself with Nu Nu and her two sons, who are conscripted into the army and face the possibility of becoming human mine detectors. Desperate to save them, Nu Nu solicits a Burmese soldier in exchange for the freedom of, alas, only one of her sons.
Emerging from this nightmarish but plausible scenario, it's hard to determine whether Julia should remain in Burma, where she is maybe happy, or return to New York, where she isn't. Yet the novel coheres and holds the attention. Sendker is a German journalist formerly based in Asia, so it’s a surprising that he allows Julia to succumb to a starry-eyed reaction to the seemingly serene and smiley Orient of legend, which, in Burma, coexists with a military that employs rape as a weapon of war. Julia is spared much dwelling on this unsettling juxtaposition.
A Well-Tempered Heart will appeal to romantics and pessimists alike, but may not satisfy either. History abounds with examples of love conquering all. Recent reforms notwithstanding, modern Burma hasn't been one of them. Still, the world and literature are richer for the contest, which is engagingly drawn here.