Tuesday, March 30, 2010

19. The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan

There was another Amy Tan book on the shelves of the library at my Spanish university, and as Tan is rapidly ascending to comfort food status in my view (joining the likes of Madeleine L'Engle, L.M.Montgomery, and Louisa May Alcott), I savored this morsel, since who knows when I'll find the next? I liked this book the best yet, so the trend continues, and part of the reason is because there is a significant deviation from previous books. Instead of an uncertain daughter who is alienated from a critical mother with a tragic past, this book is about the relationship between two sisters, told primarily from the point of view of the younger sister, Olivia.

Olvia, or Libby-ah, as her sister Kwan likes to call her, is half-Chinese, half-American, whose Chinese father dies when she is young, leaving his American wife with the revelation that he has another daughter in China, whom he would like her to bring to the States. Instead of exhibiting Chinese criticism and pessimism, Kwan, when she arrives, already 18 years old to Olivia's six, oozes love and affection, as well as stories about ghosts and past lives that frighten young Olivia. The book begins when the sisters are older, and Olivia resents the guilt and obligation that Kwan's kindness nets around her. The story also centers on Olivia's relationship with her estranged husband Simon, a Hawaiian-American who writes ad copy for Olivia's photographs in a public relations business they share.

The book is interspersed with the tales of Kwan's past life as a Hakka mountain girl who finds refuge with white Christian missionaries. The one-eyed girl Nunumu forms a friendship with the American Miss Banner, who isn't really Christian at all, but abandoned by her lover in China, she has nowhere else to go. The story takes place in the late nineteenth century, after China had been divided into spheres of influence and rebellions against foreigners and ethnic minorities were brewing. The story sets a good backdrop to the story in the present life, and within the story, Miss Banner tell stories to entertain people when she is supposed to be translating sermons into Chinese. The blur between reality and fiction occurs more strongly in this book than in any of Tan's others that I've read, but I don't think the reader is really supposed to sort that out, rather to accept it with Chinese resignation in a world that, after all, nobody really understands.

I strongly recommend The Hundred Secret Senses, especially to fans of magical realism and cross-cultural fiction.

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