'Edinburgh,' is an exceptional debut novel by Alexander Chee that tells the story of a gay Korean-American youth, Aphias Zhe, nicknamed Fee, who survives sexual abuse by his choir director, Big Eric Gorendt. Fee grows up in Cape Elizabeth, 'a town still half full of farms' near Portland, Maine, as part of a multi-generational family. He is twelve when the story begins, and he auditions for the Pine State Boys Choir and is selected along with another boy, Peter, who becomes his best friend and first love. Fee's story is told on many levels: 'This is a fox story,' Fee says. 'Of how a fox can be a boy. And so it is also the story of a fire.'
The reader learns of Peter's demise from the first sentence of the prologue: 'After he dies, missing Peter for me is like swimming in the cold spot of the lake: everyone else laughing in the warm water under too-close summer sun. This is the question that no one asks me.' From his Korean grandfather, whose six older sisters were taken away by the Japanese Imperial Army to become 'comfort women,' Fee hears the story of the shape-shifting fox-demon, whose imagery will reappear to him often over the years. Fire is a recurring theme in 'Edinburgh': it brings immolation, purification, and transcendence.
The title, 'Edinburgh,' comes from the city in Scotland, and it's also a painted fresco on the library ceiling of Fee's part-time employer, Edward Speck, an Oxford-educated historian. Speck is an elderly bachelor who employs young men as his assistants; his mentoring of them is respectful and non-predatory, unlike that of the married Big Eric. One day, Speck shows Fee an old letter from Edinburgh that was found in the spire of a cathedral; it had been written by a man who was ravaged by the Black Plague. Much later, Fee builds a stone chapel on the private school campus where he teaches ceramics and coaches the swim team. These images reinforce the strong sense of transcendence that pervades Fee's story.
The narrative is sometimes choppy, sometimes lyrical, but always true, for Mr. Chee has written this compelling story with sensitivity and grace. Fee was afraid to tell, and he didn't want anyone else to tell. He garnered information on pedophilia from library books and newspaper articles. At home, he says about his family, 'I can see, they think I am still here. They can't see that I have a secret as big as me. A secret that replaces me.' The secret comes out when another boy tells, and Big Eric is arrested, then incarcerated in prison, along with his wife. Their infant son, Edward, goes to foster care, and then to his grandparents' house to live. About halfway through 'Edinburgh,' the point of view shifts from Fee to Warden, as Edward now likes to be called as a teenager. Warden is a student at the same school where Fee works, and after Warden becomes infatuated with him, Fee confronts demons from the past.
'Edinburgh' is a coming-of-age story that shows how someone can survive childhood abuse and devastating loss to emerge strong and secure. Alexander Chee is a gifted new author who writes with imagination and courage.