Milena Banks and Riding the Tiger

Posted Wednesday, February 5, 2014 in Culture

Milena Banks and Riding the Tiger

by Gina Hamilton

Milena Banks is a first-time author in Bath whose new book, “Riding the Tiger”, has received some interesting recognition - her book was named to Kirkus’ top ten list of independent fiction for 2013, an amazing achievement for a new author.

The novel itself is a historical thriller, against the backdrop of the colonial history of the British in China, and on the eve of the second Sino-Japanese War that would, ultimately, lead to the Pacific Theatre of World War II. A young Chinese orphan, Jardine, who grew up without knowing of her past, goes to an apartment just before the Hong Kong handover in 1997 for what she thinks is a birthday party for an old man. Jardine is a dancer, who makes a living dancing for birthdays and other special events. However, the gentleman she meets isn’t an ordinary client. He is a man who can tie her to her parentage, and also a long-hidden crime that occurred before she was even born.

 Contribited Photos — Author Milena Banks and her novel, “Riding the Tiger.”  

The story is lush and rich, filled with an amazing sense of place and time. The colonials are at the same time both innocent and destructive, but are true to their British and American natures. Jack Morgan, besotted with his Russian lover, Ana, is separated from her the night Shanghai burns and falls to the Japanese. Meanwhile, his cold and calculating British fiancee, Violet, is making wedding plans, and Jack follows through with them because he owes her father his career, even though he has changed the nature of that business dramatically. Only Jack’s friend Algernon seems aware of the world-changing events that are unfolding on the Chinese coast, and his increasingly desperate warnings are falling on deaf ears.

Not everyone could have written a story like this, and it’s no surprise that Milena Banks can. Born in the former Yugoslavia, she and her family came to the Boston area when she was a child. Her father worked at MIT as a physicist. From there, the family moved to a Chicago suburb, where the young Milena grew up. After college, Banks lived in numerous places - Hong Kong, Japan, and the UK, learning about, as she put it, “the three legs of the stool” supporting this book.

She might have stayed in Japan. “I took a finishing school course in Japan ... couldn’t speak a word, but ultimately learned how. I became a Buddhist there, and felt like I was finally fitting in ... until one night, I was on a subway and saw a white person on the train ... it was me, reflected in the window. I knew then I couldn’t fit in in Tokyo, either.”

Part of the issue is the disconnect westerners feel about the third world in general. “Speaking as an American, I just want people to get over things,” she said. “People hold grudges for things that happened centuries ago. There’s a cultural memory that keeps people from moving forward.” Part of the disconnect is a sense of our own cultural guilt for colonialism and other behaviors of westerners toward the third world, and we can’t “get over” that, either.

“I guess I wrote this story because I’ve never really felt at home anywhere, either,” she said. Now living at a horse farm in Bath, where she and her husband care for 19 rescue horses and many dogs, she says that watching the way her dogs and chickens treat one another makes her realize that humans are no different. She talked about a family who brought their horse to her because they said they couldn’t afford to take care of it any more. Soon after, they purchased a new, younger horse.

“They just didn’t want to take care of the old creature who had served them its whole life.

Animals can be so trusting, and to do that is so heartless.

All creatures treat each other terribly,” she said. “Chickens will peck each other until they kill one of the hens. Dogs work out pack systems where the strongest are in charge. We’ve always believed ourselves to be better than that, but we’re not. In the book, I show how human life is held cheaply - it has no value at all.”

We’re not better, and the characters in the book - strong, entirely believable, and fatally flawed - demonstrate that all too clearly.

Banks is currently working on a book set in Kenya. “That will be harder,” she laughed. “I’ve never been to Kenya and I have no intention of going!”

But Banks does flawless research for her books. It’s likely no one will ever know that she’s never been.

“Riding the Tiger” is available through Amazon as a hardcover, and is also available as a Kindle edition.

[First appeared in the Brunswick Times Record on 1/31/2014]

blog comments powered by Disqus