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A Review of Jamie Zeppa’s “Beyond the Sky and the Earth”

November 11, 2011

After earning her master’s degree in English literature from York University, Toronto/Sault Ste. Marie native, Jamie Zeppa, became lost with her life’s course. Yearning for adventure, she impulsively leaves her country, fiancé, and a potential doctorate education to teach English for two years in Bhutan, an isolated Himalayan kingdom that is often referred to as the world’s last Shangri-La.

“I want to go home. I tell Sasha I am coming down with something, and lie in bed and wish for things: a Cosmopolitan magazine, a bagel and cream cheese, a grocery store, the Eaton Centre two days before Christmas.”

Due to the polarization between the industrialized society of Canada and the rural way-of-life in Bhutan, Zeppa struggled tremendously with her process of acculturation. People no longer spoke English, Buddhism became the dominant religion, urban infrastructure was practically non-existent, and all the simple pleasures of Canadian life were gone. Misery consumed her as the risk of disease and sickness was brought into focus: a house infested with rats and bugs, questionable meat at the local markets, and hospitals that were miles away. However, with the help and kindness of the Bhutanese people, her fears would progressively dissipate and Bhutan would eventually become her serenity.

“I remember my arrival in Bhutan and how miserable I was, and all the other teachers who seemed inexplicably content. They were right all along, I think. This is the most remarkable place, after all.”

Fundamentally, Beyond the Sky and the Earth is a love story. It is a memoir that recollects Zeppa’s romance with a landscape, a people, a culture, and a man. Intricately written with compassion, Zeppa’s book fashions us- the reader- into her persona, and systematically render us into her affection for a place. We will be carried along with her, as she journey through joy and heartbreak; empathize with her as she flows from triumphs to struggles and righteousness to shame. And by the end of it all, we all will be humbled by her journey.

“They [her young students] curl up under a blanket, and I stand in the doorway, watching their small faces relax into sleep. I must squeeze my eyes tightly to stop the tears. If I feel this sad leaving Pema Gatshel after five months, I cannot imagine how I will feel leaving Bhutan after two years.”

What’s also extraordinary about Beyond the Sky and the Earth is Zeppa’s imaginative style of description. Unlike the conventional lackluster scenery narratives of most contemporary travel literatures, Zeppa’s depictions are artistic and breathe life into the mysticism and beauty of a landscape forgotten by time.

“All around, the mountains rise and rise, pale gold and brown in the February light. At one end of the valley, beyond a wall of black, broken peaks, one white summit shimmer; at the other end, the mountains grow tamer, softly rounded and turning smoky blue in the distance.”

The only flaw with Beyond the Sky and the Earth is the book’s potential to manufacture subjective non-literary criticisms.  There are certain scenarios in the story in which the author comes off rather hypocritical and selfish.  Some readers may also be distressed by Zeppa’s heightened libido towards the Bhutanese men and her shameful fornication with the college students.  But nevertheless, Beyond the Sky and the Earth is a well-written, concise, and honest piece of literature that is full of heart.  It is a philosophical, anthropological, geographical, sociological lesson all bundled together within the boundaries of an entertaining travel memoir.  This book is an experience, a pleasure to read, and similar to the country of Bhutan itself, a hidden beauty. –Ping Zhou

“I have fallen into this world the way you fall into sleep, tumbling through layers of darkness into full dream. The way you fall in love. I am in love with the landscape, the way the green mountains turn into blue shadows in the late afternoon light… I love the sunlight as it rises above the silver valley, the unbearable clarity of everything after rain, the feeling of the great dark night all round, and knowing where I am. I am in love with the simplicity of my life, the plain rooms, the shelves empty of ornaments… I don’t want to go home at Christmas. I don’t want to go home, ever.”

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