The Road to Wanting opens with an interrupted suicide attempt. Our narrator, Na Ga is alone in a prison-like hotel room on the Chinese-Burmese border contemplating hanging herself, when the young receptionist shouts in panic through the door that another guest (known to Na Ga) has beaten her to it.
What follows is Na Ga’s account of her journey to this point. Beginning in her small home village in rural Rangoon, she is sold into slavery by her parents and later taken in by an American family then abandoned which leads her vulnerable to a sex-trafficking group. While in a refugee camp she is ‘rescued’ by an American named Will who is fascinated by her ethnic background and takes her to Bangkok to live with him. Somehow though, Na Ga cannot find peace and when Will tires of his exotic life in Thailand and Na Ga’s companionship he sends her back on a journey home.
The Road to Wanting isn’t a lighthearted read but the narrative voice is authentic and really pulls you into the story. At times Na Ga is difficult to relate to because although she describes her feelings in detail throughout, she keeps a tough veneer and her tone is detached rather than emotional. You really feel that the narrator is care-worn and that she has built a kind of protective shell around her.
Despite having visited the Indochinese region (though not Burma) I haven’t read many books set there and it was quite enlightening to read about the varied ethnicities within the area and the way that some people have become muddled and displaced because of conflict. There is quite a lot of discussion in the book given over to the way that Na Ga is perceived because of her ethnic minority status as being from the Lu (or ‘Wild Lu’ as referenced in local, disparaging articles with dubious anthropological claims). To Will this ethnic background gives her an exotic status, but she is regarded by others as from a backward tribe, and Na Ga is a quite alien in her outlook but perhaps more because the sum of her experience sets her apart and isolates her.
Na Ga’s experiences in The Road to Wanting are heartbreaking but when I read the story I didn’t feel moved to tears or emotional straight away, although a few hours later I would suddenly feel angry and disgusted by the way that humans can abuse one another under certain circumstances. It certainly isn’t a happy book, but Na Ga does find resolution and peace in herself. This is reflected in the way that the tone of the narrative changes towards the end of the story, with more beautiful descriptions creeping in.
“The moon is quietly slipping away, riding the dark foam of the treetops. And the trees are coming alive… On the slope of a hill where a white pagoda perches, the pennants are up and flying. How they take the breath away, those bright little pennants.”
The Road to Wanting is a poignant and deeply personal book which shows a person affected by events beyond her control, now beginning to find her own path. I believe that other readers will either really love this book and become involved in it or find it difficult to connect with the character. I personally find this a tough book to rate because on one level it wasn’t often an enjoyable read and I felt an emotional distance from the narrator, however this book took me on an unexpected journey, and I know that Na Ga’s experience will stay with me.