Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan

This was a great book.  Not as complex at Margaret Atwood's THE BLIND ASSASSIN, of which I am still terribly enamored, or the works of Toni Morrison, Amy Tan's THE HUNDRED SECRET SENSES is still deserving of being in discussion with those novels.  I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reading this book. 

Set in mid-90s San Francisco, the story is about Olivia, a Chinese-American woman, and her half-sister, Kwan, who came to America at the age of eighteen to live with Olivia's family, when Olivia was only four.  Their relationship is fraught by the fact that Olivia, as a child, felt embarrassed by her new sister, whose lack of understanding with regard to American customs and limited ability to speak the language made her the butt of jokes, which the younger Olivia took as a reflection on herself.  Kwan also shared with Olivia, secretly, that she could see ghosts and would share stories of these "yin people," many, if not all, of whom lived in the previous century.  Olivia eventually came to indulge her older sister, telling her she believed the stories, and even said, as a child, that she could occasionally see the ghost, as well. 

In the narrative's present, Olivia and Kwan, who calls her sister "Libby-ah," their relationship is still strained, though only from the perspective of Olivia, who finds her older sibling's continued adherence to an ability to see ghosts, troubling.  Kwan, on the other hand, has nothing but unconditional love for her younger sister.  This, due to Olivia's guilt at how she treats her sister, only exacerbates the frustration she feels with this relationship.  Add to this, her recent separation from her husband of seventeen years, Simon, and Olivia is having a bad time of things. 

Kwan plans a trip home, to China, and Olivia and Simon, who have an assignment to write an article about the native food scene of China, join her--though separated, they still have a joint business they run, are still friendly with one another, and are trying to figure out what their relationship should be and whether they will get back together or not; they are searching (or, more to the point, Olivia is searching) for something that went missing in their marriage long ago.  In the tiny village of Changmian, far off the beaten path, with no electricity and no modern conveniences anywhere, the village where Kwan grew up, Olivia and Kwan's common, family history feels very close.  Being here unlocks something, not only in the connection between siblings but also between husband and wife, and the stories that Kwan has told, over the years, about the yin people and their lives in the mid-1800s come to have new meaning.  It's a profound discovery for Olivia, one that changes the course of her life forever, and one that does not come without consequences. 

I cannot get more deeply into this change that occurs, because it would ruin the novel.  Suffice to say, a dramatic shift happens, in their and our understanding of these ghost stories, and though it's a surprise, it's also something that was laid out from the very beginning, by Ms. Tan.  As with any great story, the end is unexpected and predestined, all at once.  It's an emotional culmination that works, and that is no easy task to accomplish. 

Like Atwood's Assassin, and everything I've read by Ms. Morrison, Amy Tan writes with a confidence that is captivating.  She takes her readers by the hand, leads them where they need to go, parsing out information methodically, in a manner that, at times, is confusing, but which, in the end, allows one to look back at what came before and see how all the pieces fit neatly into the culmination of the story.  Tan feels no need to tip her hand too early or spoon feed her audience.  This is something I appreciate greatly.  It appears I will need to include more works from Tan, in my reading diet, going forward. 


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