Review: Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Susan Jane Gilman

The word “grandiose”, in my family, is a loaded word.  When one of us uses the word “grandiose” to describe someone, we understand that we actually mean “might possibly benefit from medication; updates as warranted”.  I bring that up because if I had been traveling in Communist China with a girl I didn’t know very well, and she had started talking about the project she was working on that was going to be important to national security, I’d have called home and said, “Claire is waxing grandiose,” and my parents would have said, “You get her on a plane and both of you come home this instant.”

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is a chronicle of Susan Gilman and her friend “Claire Van Houten”, who decide to go on a round-the-world backpacking trip after they graduated from Brown.  They plan to see the world raw and real, stay off the beaten path, and come home with stories of places and things unseen by Western eyes.  This already sounds very unawesome to me.  I have high anxiety levels and no sense of direction, and I do not like to go to new places (especially new places where I don’t speak the language) without a minder to mind me.  But wait!  Susan Gilman’s already unawesome plans become so much worse.  As they are traveling off the beaten path in Communist China, Claire goes crazy.  Crazy.


Here is the point at which I, child of therapists, talker-out of feelings, and frequent consulter of the DSM-IV, would have decided to pack it in:

“I’m working on a world curriculum,” she said distantly, twisting her watch around on her wrist.  “A compendium of insights on all the nations we’re visiting.  I have to profile their cultures, their histories, their outlooks.  Eventually it will be adapted for grade schools, high schools, universities, and think tanks in Washington.  It’ll be a prototype – you know, a sort of Proustian examination of the world today?  But it’ll be practical, too.  Kids like Cynthia’s boys, whose parents can’t take them to China and India, they’ll be able to access it like a database…It’s something I’ve just got to do.  It’s crucial.  One day it might become a component of our national security.”

Here is the point at which Susan Jane Gilman decided to go home:

“Claire jumped in a river?” I say after a moment.

“Yes.  But do not worry,” Jonnie adds hurriedly.  “The peasants fished her out.”


“Yes.  And they gave her clothes.”

“Clothes?” I say faintly.  “What happened to her clothes?”

“It seems she took them off,” he replies, “when she jumped in the river.”

Horrific, right?  Remember, they were in Communist China in 1986, before the internet, or like, international phone cards.  They got questioned by the military police more times than one time.  Gilman does a good job conveying her own ignorance and helplessness, her (understandable, I think) failure to recognize the signs that Claire was having a breakdown, her occasional seriously awful behavior to the people she meets.  She also writes movingly of the splendor of the good moments: walking on the Great Wall of China, listening to a Chinese opera singer on a boat late at night, the kindness of the people they meet.

However, I couldn’t enjoy this book.  It resembled too closely my worst nightmares of traveling.  It was one of those reading experiences where you can’t abandon the book in the middle, because your imagination has to be worse than the truth, and at the same time, you can’t go to bed with the book unfinished, because it will crawl into your subconscious and affix itself to your dreams like a leech.  After the Oscars (which I watched using the channels on my television, and turning the volume up and down with my remote control just because I could) I stayed up until 12:30 to finish the book.  I cannot take this kind of stress.  I must never read this book again.

I felt this same way, but more so, about Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams, which I read once on a road trip.  I had to keep reading and I didn’t want to keep reading, and finally I abandoned it at a rest stop in Alabama.  What’s been an upsetting read for you in the past?  A book that you wished you had never started but you couldn’t not finish?

Other reviews:

Sophisticated Dorkiness
reading is my superpower
Bermudaonion’s Weblog
5 Minutes for Books
S. Krishna’s Books
Wrighty’s Reads
One Person’s Journey Through a World of Books
A Bookworm’s World
Chick with Books
Devourer of Books
Bibliophile by the Sea
She Is Too Fond of Books
Books, Movies, and Chinese Food
Books in the City
Bookin’ with Bingo
Drey’s Library
A Novel Menagerie
My Book Views

39 thoughts on “Review: Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Susan Jane Gilman

  1. Thanks for the link to my review at 5M4B.

    I did enjoy the book, but I agree it became unsettling towards the end.

    I actually felt that way about a book called This One is Mine (which I think is coming out in paperback soon). I sort of enjoyed the character, but her choices and the explicit sex scenes turned me off — but I wanted to know what happened to her, so I kept reading.

    • I don’t definitely rule out books about abuse of children, but if that’s the primary point of the book, I won’t usually pick it up in the first place. I am already pretty cynical about how people treat children; I think if I read too many more books about child abuse I will become an utter misanthrope.

    • Well, it’s very well-written, and it is a vivid portrayal of (certain areas of) China in 1986. If you don’t mind the scariness of being crazy and far from home, go for it! 🙂

  2. Hmm, I was thinking I might be unsettled by this story too, but then you said you were unsettled by Animal Dreams, which is, like, one of my favorite books of all time. So now I don’t know what to think.

    I am unsettled by murder mysteries that take me into the mind of the murderer. I can’t think of any specific ones because I try to forget them as soon as I’ve read them (yes, I do have to finish and see how they come out).

    • I should say, regarding Animal Dreams, that like Undress Me, it touched too closely to real fears I had at that time. So it may not be fair for me to use that as an example. I would reread it to see, except that the thought of rereading it fills me with primal terror. (Though again, it is about being lost far from home, so that might be a thing with me.)

      American Psycho maybe? I never read it but I have heard it is darn disturbing.

    • Thanks! Just added your link to my post! Sorry I missed it the first time: I think your review was the one that made me add it to my list in the first place. Sheesh. 😛

  3. Eek. She does sound crazy. Poor Gilman, and poor Claire too.

    I can’t think of a whole book that made me feel that way, but I can remember specific scenes in books I really wish I could erase from my memory. Usually they have to do with animals getting hurt – there’s on in Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, on T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, on Neil Gaiman’s Endless Nights…as you can tell, I remember them all. I don’t think this is so difficult for me just because I *like* animals. Just, for some reason, these images have haunted me ever since I was little. Maybe I saw something when I young that I have forgotten, but still haunts me somehow. I remember that before I got my first cat when I was seven, I’d have constant nightmares that I’d accidentally smother him or something :\

    • I’m trying to think of what animals get hurt in Endless Nights, but all I can think of is that elephant that squashes the Duke of Venice. Oh my God, did something happen to Barnabas? (I am surprised at the strength of emotion that arose in me at the thought of something happening to Barnabas. He is so delightfully wry and helpful.)

  4. The book that really did that to me was Bee Season. Ugh. There’s a kind of atmosphere of insidious insanity that creeps around the corners of your mind, as if it is you that is insane rather than the characters in the book. Also (for me) The Once and Future King, Peter Pan and anything by Roald Dahl. Sick sick sick.

    • I can see the Roald Dahl thing. I was afraid of his books for years, until my mum gave me James and the Giant Peach and I realized that while he could be creepy, he could also be rather sweet. What freaked you out about Peter Pan?? Or Bee Season, actually? I thought Bee Season was a darling book about a little girl who wins a spelling contest with her adorability!

      • I don’t really remember Peter Pan well enough to say what freaked me out about it. Bee Season – have you read it? – starts out entertaining until you realize that the little girl’s entire family is insane in different ways. The only one I remember clearly is her brother, who thinks that he’s been seeing God out the window of airplanes when really he’s been seeing the blinking light on the end of the wing. It’s a very upsetting book.

  5. Your review is great! I loved how you compared when you would declared Claire insane and when Gilman did!

    I actually really liked this book – I would never be as adventurous as those two but I liked reading about their escapades.

  6. Yikes, that does sound like it would be rather terrifying! It sorta reminds me in a oh-crap-I-shouldn’t-be-here way of the movie with Clare Danes where there is a drug smuggler and they end up in a Thai (I think?) prison and there is a cockroach and bras.

    Yeah, no fun.

    • So yeah, I will not be watching that movie. 😛 My uncles are constantly traveling to third-world countries for fun, and I am just way too scared of getting lost and robbed and not being able to ask for help because I don’t speak the language. Mostly lost. I do not like to be lost, and I get lost really easily, like in shopping malls.

  7. Gah! I feel exactly the same way about travel that you do, although I may have been on the plane home even earlier, had Claire been my companion. I know exactly what you mean about books that play out your worst fears, although most of my experiences there have revolved around movies. I remember not getting through a Paulina Simons novel because the protagonist came down with leukemia. Otherwise, traumatic reads have included Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now (which was brilliant, but so so fraught) and the Ur-Traumatic Read, Watership Down, when I was 9. Never again.

    • Wait, what was it about Watership Down that scared you so bad? I read it when I was in high school, I think, and I absolutely loved it. Was it the fascist rabbits? Or those ones that lived in the field full of traps?

    • Oh my gosh. Rabbits were my childhood terror after seeing half of the animated film of Watership Down when I was five or so. I had to sleep exactly in the middle of the bed, because I figured a 14″ tall General Woundwort standing on the floor could probably reach me if any part of my my body was with within a foot of the edge of the bed. My mom kept wondering why I had the pillow pulled down so far.

      There are lots of things to be scared of other than the fascist rabbits though. When I finally read the book in my teens it was the civilized rabbits who had art that were most disturbing.

  8. When I get a book that is deeply unsettling (for me, it is usually about childhood sex abuse), I can easily not finish it if the bad parts happen first, before I have become involved with the characters. I almost didn’t finish _Blankets_ because I found the first chapter so distressing to read – and that was only about a dark cupboard. (Although actually, it was seeing Craig listening to his brother’s cries and knowing it was his fault that ripped my heart out). Not sure why child abuse does this to me when other things just as vile do not…we all have our hot buttons, I guess.

    • I’m trying to think of books I’ve read with child abuse in. For me, violence against women really puts me off a book, but I expect if I ever have kids, child abuse will affect me the same way.

    • Yeah, she just got crazier and crazier, and (I didn’t even mention this) part of her delusion was that she was involved with the CIA in a massive conspiracy. Imagine if she had been babbling about collecting information and the CIA while under the control of the military police.

  9. I had to do a double take in reading your review. Wait, did she just say UNawesome?!? I must have misread that! But no, I didn’t. Too funny, as this sounds like my kind of trip (minus the going crazy bit).

    I can’t really think of a book off the top of my head that made me squeamish, yet compelling enough to make me keep reading. Hmmmm … must go ponder that one.

    • This sounds like the least my-kind-of-trip possible. I know it’s selfish but I am all about creature comforts. I get exponentially unhappier each night that I have to go without a shower, and God help everyone around me if I don’t get at least seven hours of sleep. 😛

  10. Now I am really intrigued by this book after your review. I agree that this could really be all of my worst nightmare rolled up into one travel memoir! Goodness!

    • I know, right? That would be awful even if you were traveling somewhere fairly familiar and Westerny, let alone a place with a totally different culture and difficulty finding people to speak your language.

  11. LOL…that world curriculum idea was what made me doubt her sanity, too.

    The biggest trainwreck of a book that I finished was Too Much Tuscan Sun, in which a Tuscan tourist guide insulted Americans (although I’m sure he just thought he was being funny). Not that I have anything against insulting Americans, but I resent being lumped in with the stereotype.

    • I mean Americans are an easy target and all, and I make fun of them too, but yeah, I resent it too. Make fun of individuals! Individuals are just as fun to mock! 😛

  12. Just wanted to add: when I heard the resume of this book, the part that was most scary was not so much Claire’s psychotic break, but that Susan had to get her home safely, against her will, with no one to talk to or rely on. When I think of myself at that age…*shudders*

    • Yup! Though I don’t think I will ever reach an age where I would be able to handle this well. I am just not good at being in unknown places. I get all, you know, lost and panicky.

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