RUNAWAY by Evelyn Lau (Review)


Subtitled “Diary of a Street Kid”, this is the diary of Evelyn Lau, a Chinese-Canadian who, at the age of 14, ran away from an oppressive, loveless home, only to end up, a few weeks later, in a psychiatric hospital. Why? Because she had swallowed thirty aspirin in an attempt to commit suicide.

I remember feeling superior in the waiting room, dismissing the psychiatric patients as crazies I’d never have to join. There was the scrawny Chinese woman with the greasy hair, the mumbling Caucasian woman with the wiglike hair she brushed from her face with nervous hands. Loonies. I was going to get out; I belonged to the outside world.

Then they hand me hospital clothing, dull blue, and the walls begin to spin. […] The Chinese woman runs to me in her fluffy yellow slippers that remind me involuntarily of Big Bird (just another way of degrading the patients here), holding me, her sharp face begging, ‘Don’t hurt her. Please don’t hurt her.’ The man on duty drags me to the floor, so used to doing it that he no longer needs a reason. […] I make a run for the washroom […] A nurse forces her way through the bathroom door, then another; white-clad nurses spill into the bathroom, murmuring, hands searching my pockets for sharp objects. I’m kicking, screaming, crying, wrenched from former freedom.

I’d rather be living on the streets, standing in puddles of glistening black and neon – at least I’d be free. […]

A deaf, dumb and blind woman performs the Thorazine shuffle endlessly, methodically, from early morning till bedtime.

At last she is released into the care of the parents she has come to hates. And immediately runs away again.

Two a.m at the bus depot. […] Unshaven men are my company tonight, picking out items from the garbage can in front of me. […] Two strangers pull up in their car and ask if I need a ride and do I give head […] It’s graduation night for three of the High Schools in the district, and everyone is either drunk or high. The girls laugh at Death, hair wild in their faces in the limousines, while the guys in their tuxedos feel like men. I’m sure the men in this depot don’t feel so grown up […]

Now I’m in a restaurant; at least it’s warm. […]

The staff in this place just kicked out a derelict in his tattered, stained clothing, who apparently seeks out this restaurant each night to slump into a chair and try to sleep. I beg them to let him stay, offering to buy him food, but they refuse and then gossip in the kitchen. […]

The restaurant closes and I migrate to a twenty-four hour coffee shop, where I meet the derelict again, drinking coffee and shaking. Beside me at the counter, he asks tentatively, ‘Can I touch your leg?’ and places his fingers there in a curiously obligatory manner, as if he had to because I was female. I shake my head tiredly. He takes his fingers back in silence, and doesn’t try again.

That is just the beginning. Soon the drugs begin. Then the “giving head” to get money for the drugs … She too becomes “a derelict”.

But I am not approaching this right. I am giving the wrong impression. Let me start again:

This is the diary of Evelyn Lau, a writer who had it much harder than most. Living in a garret is nothing to this. Her day job was giving head to jerks who picked her up in their cars, then, gradually, as she became known, her own clientele. The day job, I stress. (Or should I say night job.) Because all the time she was writing. This wonderful diary is only the half of it. She was also writing poetry. Winning prizes! Even giving readings!

When she first ran away, at the age of 14, the Vancouver Sun splashed her on their front page with the words “I’ve never met a kid who could write like that” – “the only kind words they allow,” Evelyn comments. But the reporter was right.

And the closing paragraph of the book says it all: If I had saved the story of my adolescence to write when I was older, it would have been a very different book …

It would indeed. And that it was written at the time is its beauty. It is not a book by a writer about the life of a street kid. It is not a book by your ordinary, everyday, inarticulate street kid. It is a book by a writer written while she was living as, no, while she was a street kind. It reminds me of Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris. He was down and out in London and Paris. Like Evelyn, he had known the comfortable life of the relatively wealthy. Like Evelyn, he was now authentically down and out, on the street. And like Evelyn, he was a great writer.

Think of it, then, as Down and Out in Vancouver and New York. (Yes, she spends a while in New York, too.)

It is really something very special.


England, 1296-1332

By the end of 1311 Isabella was still only fifteen years of age but nevertheless a Queen in her own right, a powerful landowner and a lavish patron. She had a household of over 200. Her tailor, John Falaise, employed sixty seamstresses to maintain and repair the Queen’s robes. Falaise also supervised the Queen’s treasury in the Tower of london – huge iron-bound coffers containing Isabella’s jewels, plates and precious cloths, which were supplemented by gifts from the King. She was given rich wardships and the control of lands whose owners had yet to come of age. The manors of Bourne and Deeping, as well as the royal manor of Eltham, with additional lands in Kent, were added to her estates. She attended her husband, graced the state occasions and made royal tours, such as her pilgrimage to Becket’s shrine in Canterbury, being awarded £140 to defray the costs …

This was the first non-fiction Doherty I ever read and, for those of you out there who enjoy historical fiction but can’t cope with straight history (too much like school), I recommend it: this will open your eyes and change your mind. This is how history can and should be written.

The first half just gives us the facts, a brief biography, of the early life of Isabella of France, daughter of the notorious Philip IV (le Bel), a great queen, a second Eleanor of Aquitaine, but who unlike Eleanor always had a bad press. And always has had, till now.

The heart of the book is in the second half, when Edward II is deposed and dies (is killed?) and is buried in Gloucester Cathedral, Isabella and her paramour Mortimer hold the reins of power until 1330; then the boy king Edward III seizes power and has Mortimer executed. Beneath these few short dramatic years, there lies a mystery. What really happened to Edward II? Did he die as a result of ill treatment and the bad conditions of his imprisonment? Was he murdered, at Isabella’s (or Mortimer’s) orders? Or had he in fact already escaped or been freed by his supporters? If the latter, then the story of his death would have been a cover-up so that when he eventually surfaced, Isabella could claim he was an imposter.

There is not enough evidence to prove conclusively that Edward II did escape, and Fieschi’s letter to Edward III cannot be taken literally, but there is certainly enough evidence to cast serious doubt on the traditional story of his death as depicted in Marlow’s play Edward II.

But read Doherty and see: it is a real “detective” story that reminds me of some of the books about Richard III (Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, for instance). If “truth is the daughter of time”, then it is certainly high time the truth about Isabella and Edward came out into the open.

I particularly like the thought that what happened to her and Edward was all part and parcel of the “Templars’ Curse” put on Philip IV and his family by the dying Jacques de Molay. As Doherty observes,

Isabella’s war-like grandson, the Black Prince, turned France, Spain and Northern Europe into a battleground, ravaging her home country and destroying the massed might of French chivalry at the battles of Crecy and Poitiers. She, the last Capet, saw her father’s great dream crumble into dust. Isabella must have wondered about the curse of jacques de Molay, screamed from the flames as he burnt to death on an island in the Seine. After all, Isabella was supposed to have brought a lasting peace between England and France by her marriage to Edward II. Instead, her brothers had all died without male issue, leaving Edward III with a claim to the French throne. Isabella had, in effect. brought about a war that would last one hundred years.