I just reread this book, and I'm not sure what I think about it. I loved the story, and cried at the end, not because it was so sad, because it was a pretty happy ending, but I just felt so much for all the people in the story.
Overall it seemed to be an example of what it was about, and maybe it's what UKL is about, telling stories, the right stories. It was about an Ekumen observer's discovery of a culture that was all about The Telling. One character summed it up by saying that animals know what to do, they do what they have to do, but only humans are born not knowing what to do, and only can learn what they should do, how to look after things (because humans are the ones who look after things) by the telling, by hearing stories.
I think that's really true, that people's fundamental unit of knowledge is the story. The stories they told in this culture weren't like fables with an easy moral that is the meaning. The meanings were multiferous, and subtle, and ill-defined. They made you think. They weren't just filling you up with didactic stuff. I guess that's the takeaway for me on this reading. Let go of didacticism and just tell true stories. I'm very didactic as a mother and annoy my son with it. =)
The other thing I really loved about the story is there was a guy the main character (Sutty) hated, called The Monitor. He was everything Sutty from her earliest youth had learned to mistrust and had been damaged by, the sort of fanatic who had damaged her family tremendously, and who had killed the girl she loved. During the course of the story she had to talk to this person and get to know him better. They told each other the stories of their childhoods. Turns out the Monitor in many ways was the mirror image of Sutty herself. Their childhoods had not been that different. Both were profoundly hurt by fanaticism. His had led him to become a fanatic himself, in some attempt to justify what had happened. I loved that he was at first a figure of hatred, a powerful terrible person, and later became for us a figure of deep sympathy, a terribly injured person in both body and spirit.
The end was sad, happy, and satisfying all at once. I love UKL as a storyteller. Her stories are also subtle and deep and true.