Author Juan Rader Bas explores themes of identity, family and home as they intermingle with cultural and social elements in this touching and evocative multi-faceted coming-of-age story.
Seventeen-year-old Ricardo Gilbert (Ricky), a Filipino adopted by Americans, relocates from his home in Singapore to America, or more specifically, the suburb of Montclair, New Jersey. Ricky faces the challenges of homesickness and a new environment with all its cultural differences, but also uncovers family secrets that threaten to shatter his already brittle sense of identity. Through Tae Kwon Do Ricky discovers the discipline and vision to tame his anger and gain perspective and insight that allows him to make peace with himself, but also his father.
Ricky is a fleshed out protagonist who is not only dealing with a multitude of emotions and reactions to a foreign culture, but also with the general trials of becoming a young man. His youthful pride and anger reveal themselves in his confrontational and defensive interactions with his family members and peers. These qualities, contrasted with Ricky’s innocence, desire for acceptance and his sudden awareness of being a minority make him a sympathetic character.
Author Juan Rader Bas effectively portrays the relationship between Ricky and his adoptive father, through their tense interactions, Ricky’s suspicious analysis of his father’s words or actions and Ricky’s incredulity whenever his father does something that reveals an inner strength or knowledge that Ricky doesn’t expect him to possess; as seen in Ricky’s surprise when his father uses the correct terminology to describe Ricky’s Tae Kwon Do uniform: “Dobok? Did he just say dobok?” Bas skillfully interweaves the aspects of Ricky’s life, family, social and his personal growth through his Tae Kwon Do; developing the main themes while setting up the plot twists.
Bas’s narrative flows smoothly and includes many striking images, for example when Ricky walks into a hospital and notices the smell in a gush of air and describes it as, “Death’s putrid hello.” There are some inconsistencies in time and the use of distracting roundabout sentence constructions that often provide unnecessary explanations, such as when someone greets Ricky: “the greeting came from behind me so I turned”. While the narrative revolving around Ricky’s Tae Kwon Do sessions offer some vivid action scenes and a plethora of information about the philosophy and procedures of the practice; at times, the descriptions become dry in an attempt to capture the whole event and slip into overgeneralizing: “The class went well and, for the most part, everyone was friendly and helpful”.
BACK KICKS is rich with multi-cultural details that not only highlights aspects of the Filipino and Singaporean culture, but also reveals the multi-layered elements of Chinese, Korean and Japanese cultures in the descriptions of food and the subculture of martial arts. BACK KICKS uncovers elements of racism that is both obvious and nuanced, from the school children’s taunting of one another on the bus, to Ricky’s Asian friend’s comment, “You know, there are plenty of Asian girls in the Asian Students Association” and the description of his friend’s cupboard revealing a spectrum of ethnic foods. Bas freely uses foreign words and phrases that add to the authenticity of the characters and situations, especially in the narrative about martial arts. Usually the meaning of the terms and names are easily deduced from the context; however Bas also includes an extensive glossary in the back of the book for easy reference.
BACK KICKS AND BROKEN PROMISES is an insightful and pertinent novel that successfully conveys the intricacies of a young adult coming to terms with his multi-cultural identity as he makes a place for himself in an unfamiliar environment within society, but also within his own family.
Reviewed by Maya Fleischmann for IndieReader