Synopses & Reviews
Vincent Saunders has graduated from college, left his small hometown in Illinois, and arrived in Taiwan as a Christian volunteer. After opening a ministry house, he meets a wealthy Taiwanese businessman, Mr. Gwa, who tells Vincent that on his far travels to western China he has discovered a beautiful young woman living near the famous landmark Heaven Lake. Elegant, regal, clever, she works as a lowly clerk in the local railway station. Gwa wishes to marry her, but is thwarted by the political conflict between China and Taiwan. In exchange for a sum of money, will Vincent travel to China on Gwa's behalf, take part in a counterfeit marriage, and bring her back to Taiwan for Gwa to marry legitimately? Vincent, largely innocent about the ways of the world and believing that marriage is a sacrament, says no. Gwa is furious.
Soon, though, everything Vincent understands about himself and his vocation in Taiwan changes. Supplementing his income from his sparsely attended Bible-study classes, he teaches English to a group of enthusiastic schoolgirls and it is his tender, complicated friendship with a student that forces Vincent to abandon the ministry house and sends him on a path toward spiritual reckoning. It also causes him to reconsider Gwa's extraordinary proposition.
What follows is not just an exhilarating sometimes harrowing journey to a remote city in China, but an exploration of love, passion, loneliness, and the nature of faith. John Dalton's exquisite narrative arcs across China as gracefully as it plumbs the human heart, announcing a major new talent.
"Sober and searching yet sublimely comic, this impressive debut about a modern-day missionary in Taiwan charts a journey away from reflexive faith and toward a broader understanding of the world and its ways....This is a noteworthy first novel by a writer to watch." Publishers Weekly
"Vincent's passage from a sheltered, religious life into reality is filled with dramatic episodes and unique characters that make this an exciting page-turner." Library Journal
"Dalton's debut novel is an evocative, beautiful exploration of modern-day China....Powerful and rewarding reading." Booklist
"Dalton...renders the events of Vincent's story with a vivid, cinematic intensity....Heaven Lake is at its most powerful when its brilliant portraits of the Chinese and Taiwanese landscapes yield emotional revelation." Boston Globe
"A thorough work of operatic feeling and proportion..." San Francisco Chronicle,
"Heaven Lake is an auspicious debut, an often amusing novel that also manages to be thoughtful about matters of faith, about human communication and about learning to live in the world." San Jose Mercury News
"The novel...feels just right....[Dalton] writes about faith with all the humility of his protagonist but with deft brush strokes of humor and with a lush prose..." Miami Herald
"Americans didn't invent youthful naiveté, of course, but they patented it quickly....[O]ur canon is dominated by stories of young men striding into the world, only to find it a more complicated and compromising place than they'd anticipated. John Dalton's thoughtful debut novel, Heaven Lake
, is a worthy descendent of that tradition....This is a story as sensitive to the complexities and beauties of China as to the territory of the human heart." Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor
(read the entire Christian Science Monitor review
Booklist called this critically acclaimed, epic novel of love and revelation "an evocative, beautiful exploration of modern-day China."
When Vincent Saunders fresh out of college in the States arrives in Taiwan as a Christian volunteer and English teacher, he meets a wealthy Taiwanese businessman who wishes to marry a young woman living in China near Heaven Lake but is thwarted by political conflict. Mr. Gwa wonders: In exchange for money, will Vincent travel to China, take part in a counterfeit marriage, and bring the woman back to Taiwan for Gwa to marry legitimately? Believing that marriage is a sacrament, Vincent says no.
Soon, though, everything Vincent understands about himself and his vocation in Taiwan changes. A complicated friendship with one of the high-school girls he teaches sends him on a path toward spiritual reckoning. It also causes him to reconsider Gwa's extraordinary proposition. What follows is not just an exhilarating sometimes harrowing journey to a remote city in China, but an exploration of love, loneliness, and the nature of faith.
When Vincent Saunders
-- fresh out of college in the States -- arrives in Taiwan as a Christian volunteer and English teacher, he meets a wealthy Taiwanese businessman who wishes to marry a young woman living in China near Heaven Lake but is thwarted by political conflict. Mr. Gwa wonders: In exchange for money, will Vincent travel to China, take part in a counterfeit marriage, and bring the woman back to Taiwan for Gwa to marry legitimately? Believing that marriage is a sacrament, Vincent says no.
Soon, though, everything Vincent understands about himself and his vocation in Taiwan changes. A complicated friendship with one of the high-school girls he teaches sends him on a path toward spiritual reckoning. It also causes him to reconsider Gwa's extraordinary proposition. What follows is not just an exhilarating -- sometimes harrowing -- journey to a remote city in China, but an exploration of love, loneliness, and the nature of faith.
About the Author
is the author of the novel, Heaven Lake
, winner of the Barnes and Noble 2004 Discover Award in fiction and the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy
of Arts and Letters. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently a member of the English faculty at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where he teaches in their MFA Writing Program. John lives with his wife and two daughters in St. Louis
Table of Contents
Part One: The Volunteer
Part Two: Sister Gloria, Sister Moon
Part Three: Best Intentions
Part Four: The Goat Herder
Part Five: The Other Half
Reading Group Guide
READING GROUP GUIDE
A Novel by John Dalton
Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Heaven Lake is part American-abroad story set in Taiwan and China, part harrowing travel adventure filled with mystery and intrigue, part spiritual odyssey, and, ultimately, a surprising love story. Discuss the ways in which the novel succeeds or fails on each of these levels.
2. Inspired by missionary zeal, Vincent Saunders travels seven thousand miles from home in Illinois in hopes of spreading the word of Christ to the residents of the Taiwanese town of Toulio. What is the reader to make of his harsh and judgmental first impressions, views that Vincent himself admits are "uncharitable" and "graceless to the core"? What kind of temperament do you think it takes to be a successful missionary in a foreign land? Does Vincent seem well suited to his volunteer assignment? What are your first impressions of Vincent? How do they change as the novel unfolds?
3. What are your first impressions of the Scotsman, Alec, and how do these impressions change over the course of the novel? Are there times when Vincent misperceives both Alec and the boy, Shao-fei? Could it be that Alec, for all his hash smoking and raucous behavior, is in significant ways a more moral person than Vincent?
4. "I don't understand why you took me there. I'm a Jesus teacher. It's one of the first things I told you about myself," Vincent says to Gwa when the businessman brings him to a Toulio massage parlor/whorehouse. What do we learn about both men from that initial unpleasant encounter? Why does Vincent accept Gwa's money? How does the author use that scene to establish the power balance between Gwa and Vincent?
5. What do you think of the Reverend Phillips' recommendation that Gloria reside at the ministry house with Vincent for convenience but that the two present themselves as brother and sister to avoid gossip? What is the reader to make of Vincent's realization that it was not the lying that concerned him, "but rather how the perception of them as brother and sister would yoke them together in people's minds. A certain brotherly affection would be expected of him. Already he felt the squeeze of family obligation"? How does Vincent react to Gloria's enthusiasm for calligraphy and door-to-door canvassing? And why isn't he pleased to have a partner as zealous, or more zealous, than he?
6. When Vincent finds himself teaching English to 42 teenage girls at the Ming-da Academy, he is clearly caught off guard when one of the girls boldly flirts with him and inquires about her chances of becoming his girlfriend. How might he have better handled the situation? Do you think his delayed and flustered response encouraged Trudy? Does Vincent's isolation is Toulio, his aloneness, play a role in his dealings with Trudy? Does it influence the way he views the entire class?
7. Even though Trudy is clearly a willing sex partner, today in America an affair between a 16-year-old student and her 24-year-old teacher would not only lead to scandal but might result in criminal charges. How do you judge Vincent's behavior with Trudy? Is there something innocent about their involvement? Does your knowledge that he is still technically a virgin when they begin seeing each other change your expectations for his conduct? How do you judge his behavior with his ex-girlfriend from home, Carrie Ann? What do both of these relationships tell us about the kind of person Vincent is?
8. At one point in their affair, Vincent asks Trudy if she thinks the things they are doing are wrong. Discuss the irony of this Jesus teacher seeking spiritual guidance from the teenager he is having sex with. Vincent finds himself conducting Bible study classes, "fully aware that the pulse of his convictions, his private faith, had grown dangerously shallow, nearly unreadable." Talk about the crisis of faith Vincent is undergoing.
9. How does the beating that Trudy's brother administers fit Vincent's need for retribution? Why does he call Gwa, whom he neither likes nor trusts, in hopes of reviving Gwa's bizarre plan to have him journey to mainland China to marry a woman and bring her back to Taiwan for him? Why does Alec, when Vincent confides the details of his affair with Trudy, confess that he likes the new Vincent, the beat-up Vincent, better? Do you agree or disagree? Why? When Vincent starts to compose his letter to Reverend Phillips to explain his hasty departure, he is reminded of how often he has resorted to lies and how ugly this habit has become. Partly as an experiment to see if he is still capable of knowing and telling the truth, he tries to write it out for Phillips. How does this new accounting of what happened change your opinion of Vincent?
10. One of the attractions of reading a book about travels in exotic locales is the opportunity to take an armchair voyage to places one would like to visit. Did Vincent's travels throughout China increase your desire to see the country? Why or why not? Did the descriptions of the hardships and indignities he suffered dampen any enthusiasm you might have had?
11. Discuss the rapture and exultation that Vincent discovers at Heaven Lake and what he means when he realizes suddenly: "Everything is a miracle, a mystery. Everything is godŠWhat the long journey to Urumchi and then to Heaven Lake had shown him, was that you could navigate your life without knowing. You could sometimes love the mystery as devoutly as the believers loved their gods."
12. When Kai-ling changes her mind and decides not to go through with the phony marriage, Gwa tells Vincent to marry the younger sister instead and bring her back with him. Why does Jia-ling go along with this strange arrangement? When Jia-ling and Gwa disappear together, Vincent is obsessed with unraveling the mystery. Why? As you were reading the novel, did you share his fears that Jia-ling had been kidnapped or sold into prostitution? What did you think when you learned that Gwa already had a wife and child? How does the author manage to convey the slow and subtle changes in Vincent's feelings for Jia-ling and hers for him?
13. When Trudy's brother returns to beat him up again, what does Vincent's decision to fight back say about his coming to terms with his transgressions?
14. Is Vincent a significantly different person by the end of the novel? Throughout the book he has struggled against loneliness and desire. Has he overcome these powerful inner forces or will they always remain ungovernable? How has his view of God and missionary work changed by the final chapters? How is this reflected in the phone conversation with Mr. Liang that ends the novel?
Q&A with John Dalton, author of Heaven Lake
Q: Is it true that part of your novel is based on an actual proposition you received in Taiwan?
A: It is, yes. This happened only a few months after I'd arrived in Taiwan in 1989. I'd moved to Toulio on a whim to teach English in a language school. At night, after classes, I'd go and have dinner with several other foreign teachers along a lane of food stalls. We were great rarities in town, often stared at, frequently approached. Several nights in a row a local gentleman, an overly-cheery businessman with a fitful manner, came to our table. He was an enthusiastic beer drinker. One evening, after many rounds of beer, he told his story. He'd recently been to the mainland to seek out business opportunities and, purely by chance, had met and fallen in love with a woman whom he described as the most beautiful woman in China. He wanted to marry her. She and her family welcomed the prospect. Politically, however, such a union would either be impossible or result in long bureaucratic delays. And so he made a standing offer of ten thousand U.S. dollars to our table of foreign teachers for anyone willing to travel to the mainland, marry the woman under false pretenses and bring her to Taiwan. Was he serious? Half-serious, perhaps, and drunk. This gentleman bears almost no resemblance to my character, Mr. Gwa, in Heaven Lake, but the proposition itself was a kind of gift, an evocative and story-rich idea I might someday build a novel around.
Q: You said "someday" you'd build a novel How long did it take before that germ of an idea became the book we see today?
A: Quite a long time. I spent several years acquiring the obsessive, day-to-day discipline that's needed if you want to write professionally, then several more, highly valuable years studying fiction writing at the University of Iowa. Heaven Lake took me a total of eight years to write. Like many beginning writers, I had to make the difficult leap from short stories to learning the craft and form of a novel. I wrote some three hundred pages, threw most of them out, and started over. The novel seemed to require a maturity and breadth of vision I didn't yet have. What I discovered was that this maturity and vision accrues gradually over the course of many days, months, years of struggling to be a better writer.
Q: Vincent, too, seeks maturity and vision over the course of the novel. How much of yourself is imbued in his character?
A: Probably more than I'm able to recognize. There's a degree of irony here because I specifically didn't want to center the novel around a character like myself an American expatriate English teacher living in Asia. It seemed too common an experience. But what did seem interesting and singular was the predicament of several Mormon and Christian missionaries I crossed paths with while living in Toulio. Part of what's strange and wonderful about being an expatriate is the attraction you feel, on many different levels, toward this strange, new, foreign culture. Yet that allurement was especially problematic for them. My guess is that it inspired a certain amount of longing sensual, romantic, spiritual that had to be repressed. And I've always been sympathetic to repressed characters in fiction (Mrs. Bridge, or the butler, Stevens, in Remains of the Day are two that come to mind).
Q: Now that you've invoked Kazuo Ishiguro, tell us some of your other influences, or writers and characters from whom you draw inspiration.
Charles Baxter and Alice Munroe are the two writers I most often read and reread, trying, hoping, to acquire some of the grace and humor and uncommon insight layered into their sentences. But I could easily mention twenty other masterful contemporary writers. Two amazing and very different novels, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee and Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout, were not only exhilarating to read but also helped me sort through difficulties I was having writing Heaven Lake. Finally, although it's a standard choice for writers, I have to say Anna Karenina. Even though Anna is the star of the novel, and Tolstoy's portrait of her is profoundly deep and pure, I'm more drawn to what for many readers is the novel's less dynamic half, the story of Levin and his struggle to understand his place in the world and his own contradictory nature. I tried to shape Vincent in this mold and let him wrestle with similar dilemmas questions of God, loneliness and desire. While traveling across China, Vincent reads an unnamed Russian novel. In my mind it's Anna Karenina.
Q: We know now that it was your own traveling, and living, in Toulio that inspired much of the novel...but did you see or experience anything remarkable during your stay there that didn't make it into Heaven Lake? Which you might be saving for another novel, perhaps?
A: I had a number of experiences while traveling in general, and in China in particular, that would fall into the category of remarkable, strange, even harrowing. And while many of these experiences make good campfire stories, they couldn't really be used for Heaven Lake because they weren't right for Vincent. Much of the storytelling aspect of writing is matching just the right event to just the right character. So I'll probably never be able to use them directly. But indirectly they're of great value to me. They're a reminder that the world is an infinitely strange and unexpected place, and in a very roundabout way they'll inform future scenes I write that have no outward connection to Asia or traveling.
Q: Thanks for your time, John, and for sharing your thoughts about the process of writing this extraordinary novel. Is there anything else you'd like to tell your readers as they embark on Vincent's journey or writers, who may be starting first novels of their own?
A: To anyone who has read or is about to read Heaven Lake, my gratitude. I hope the book is a complete journey, spiritually and emotionally, and that it lives on in your imagination. To those of you writing your own first novels, I would advise you not to waste time feeling ashamed for being an unpublished writer. Each time you sit alone in a room and give your most honest and complete effort, you've earned the title of writer, particularly on those days when you struggle the hardest, when you spend all afternoon and evening refining an idea or the precise phrasing of a few descriptions, when you're pushing yourself beyond your own abilities. These hard-fought and seemingly inconsequential victories accumulate over time and make all the difference.