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The Solemn Lantern Maker    by Merlinda Bobis Amazon.com order for
Solemn Lantern Maker
by Merlinda Bobis
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Delta, 2009 (2009)
Paperback

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Solemn Lantern Maker is Philippine author Merlinda Bobis's second novel (following Banana Heart Summer). Though it's set during the Christmas season, it's not a feel good holiday novel, but rather contrasts the seasonal celebration with political corruption, child prostitution, and people's self-centered tendency to ignore the plight of those around them.

The novel is set in Manila, where mute 10-year-old Noland makes festive lanterns out of Japanese paper, peddling them to cars stopped at a highway intersection. He's helped by his twelve-year-old friend Elvis, whose uncle Bobby Cool has made a substantial donation to this small start-up business. Elvis is a jaunty Artful Dodger to Noland's Oliver Twist, with a similar combination of amorality and affection for his younger friend.

As the duo ply their wares, Noland's attention is caught by an American woman with golden hair, an angel to his innocent eyes. When Cate Burns exits her taxi to make a purchase, she's injured in a drive-by shooting of a daring journalist whose exposÚs of 'corruption and extra-judicial killing' put him at risk. Noland bundles the unconscious Cate into his lantern cart, and he and a protesting Elvis hurry her home to the hovel Noland shares with his crippled mother, near a 'creek of fetid water'.

Though Noland's mother Nena also protests the danger (of attention from the authorities) the stranger brings into their lives, they do what they can for Cate while she lies in a coma. As readers get acquainted with mother and son, they wonder about the tragedy in their pasts that killed Noland's father, left him mute, and destroyed Nena's legs. The American tourist also suffered a loss, one that makes her empathize with mother and son once she regains awareness.

Soon a search is mounted for the missing tourist and for the terrorists who took her. While this goes on, Nena cares for Cate, Noland and Elvis roam the streets, and Bobby Cool makes plans for both boys. It all comes to a head when Cate is found, Nena and Noland arrested, and their past history comes to light. As Christmas dawns, matters are resolved, unfortunately not to the benefit of the poor and powerless.

The Solemn Lantern Maker is a modern Dickensian story, rich in imagery and in the sights and smells of the Manila slums. It will not necessarily make you feel good but it will make you think.

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