STRAY LOVE by Kyo Maclear (HarperCollins), 317 pages, $29.99 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Had she only mined her experience as the daughter of war correspondent Michael Maclear, Kyo Maclear might have found gold enough for Stray Love. But she's not settling for that.
Parental abandonment and its emotional aftermath, a budding artist's sensibilities, race-based bullying, the ravages of war: they're all on the agenda in this gem of a novel.
Journalist/illustrator Marcel's old friend Kyomi has asked him to take care of her preteen daughter Iris while she attends to her mother, a car accident victim. Iris is an open, poised and happy child, someone Marcel can't quite fathom. He was a very different kid.
Maclear weaves the narrative of Marcel's connection to Iris with his own life story. After being abandoned by his mother, he was brought up as a confused orphan in postwar England by step-dad Oliver. About his birth parents, he knows only that his mother disappeared and his father was black, which is where Marcel got the brown skin that makes him a target at school.
Marcel desperately wants to find his mother, but information eludes him. His newspaperman father - almost always absent, both literally and emotionally as he travels from one war-torn country to another - is no help. Marcel lives with various caregivers until Oliver invites the 11-year-old to join him in Vietnam.
Maclear's insights into childhood fears are deep. Marcel can see the toll Oliver's work is taking on him and constantly turns to his sketchbook for solace. Her descriptions of the devastating changes war wreaks on the gorgeous city of Saigon through the early 60s are vivid.
But for all the beautiful writing about shattered cities, grief and what inspires - and blocks - an artist, the story is the key. Stray Love is part war tale, part mystery and also a love story about Marcel's struggle with his feelings for Kyomi.
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