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Critical Review by Penelope Mesic
SOURCE: "Sisterly Bonds," in Chicago Tribune Books, November 5, 1995, pp. 1, 11.
In the following review, Mesic praises Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses stating, "She provides what is most irresistible in popular fiction: a feeling of abundance, an account so circumstantial, powerful and ingenious that it seems the story could go on forever."
Down in Birmingham, Alabama, under a sign that says Ollie's, there's a circular stainless-steel structure like a just-landed flying saucer. It seats 400 and is always full. Only two things are served there, barbecue and pie. Clearly, Ollie, whoever he was, realized that no third thing could ever be as good and quit while he was ahead. It may seem that this has nothing to do with Amy Tan's latest novel, The Hundred Secret Senses, which is about two Chinese half-sisters, but there is a marked similarity. The novel is like Ollie's in combining three qualities almost never found together: popularity, authenticity and excellence. And like that wonderful restaurant, this book is going to pull a crowd that includes both sophisticates and the simple-hearted, not by being bland but by offering sharp flavors—the prose equivalent of vinegar, pepper and wood smoke.
Tan's novel shows us a pair of women whose peculiarities, whose resentments, whose tactless truth telling, odd beliefs, jokes and quirks and annoyances, give them a pretty much universal appeal. One sister, the narrator Olivia, grows up Chinese-American in San Francisco. The other, Kwan, comes from mainland China in her late teens to join her father's second family.
Waiting at the airport, the family expects a timid, scrawny waif, but Kwan is "like a strange old lady, short and chubby … her broad brown face flanked by two thick braids." "Anything but shy," Olivia tells us, Kwan "bellowed, 'Hall-oo! Hall-oo!" Still hooting and laughing she jumped and squealed the way our new dog did whenever we let him out of the garage."
The description brilliantly captures Kwan's lack of self-consciousness, her eagerness. And it suggests, too, Olivia's cruel distaste for a loud and clumsy interloper.
Throughout Olivia's childhood, a pattern persists. Kwan is humble, tender, always striving to please Olivia. But Olivia, much younger, is resentful at having to share her mother's love; resentful that her older half sister takes her mother's place in caring for her; resentful that Kwan, ignorant of American ways, appears to "come from Mars."
We see the nature of their relationship perfectly expressed when Olivia recalls seizing the shining length of Kwan's beautiful hair. "I'd grab her mane and yank it like the reins of a mule, shouting, 'Giddyap, Kwan, say hee-haw!'" Years later, their attitudes are still the same. Kwan invites her sister to dinner, Olivia refuses. Kwan persists. "Feel sick?" "No." "You want me come over, bring you orange? I have extra, good price, six for one dollar." "Really, I'm fine."
The elder is unfailingly loyal, blind to insult, generous. When Olivia can't restrain her irritation and says something unforgivable, Kwan of course forgives her. Even more irritating, Olivia realizes, is the fact that after such an outburst, "The wound Kwan bears heals itself instantly. Whereas I feel guilt forever."
These are characters more than plausible. They have all the awful, wonderful vitality of fact. As Tan structures the narrative, the reader is drawn in, feeling the sympathy for Kwan her sister withholds. Even so, readers are far more likely to identify with the grudging Olivia.
Kwan is in almost every way a very ordinary woman, no one it would be the fulfillment of a fantasy to identify with. She's unstylish, scarcely educated, a tireless advice-giver and boringly down to earth in her preoccupation with family, ailments and bargains ("Guess how much I don't pay!" she cries triumphantly). Nevertheless, it is in exactly such humble vessels that mysteries are contained, and Kwan possesses some uncanny abilities.
Chief among them is her power to see and hear yin spirits, or ghosts. The wonderful thing about Tan's novel as ghost story is that in a kind of mental jujitsu, Tan makes us take her ghosts seriously precisely because she makes no apparent effort to convince us that these visitors are particularly spooky or, indeed, real.
Kwan herself takes their visits for granted. In trying, for example, to convince Olivia they should journey to China to set the spirit of their dead father to rest, Kwan's arguments are not metaphysical but comically practical. "Virgie can cook for Georgie, and Georgie can take care of your dog, no need to pay anyone."
Olivia does her best to regard Kwan as crazy. "Kwan is wacky, even by Chinese standards, even by San Francisco standards. A lot of what she says and does would strain the credulity of most people who are not on anti-psychotic drugs or living on a cult farm." But Tan's shrewd abstention from the usual brooding, mysterious atmosphere of the spirit world makes Kwan's ghosts, with their vigorous bickering about marriage, food and money, particularly convincing.
What gradually emerges from dreamlike passages set 100 years ago in China, during the fierce struggles between bandits and foreign traders in the opium wars, is that two of the spirits Kwan listens to are previous incarnations of Olivia and Kwan. The older sister's determination to serve the younger, her humility and her love arise directly from the experiences of a former life.
Eventually, after much prodding by Kwan, the two women pay their visit to China, taking with them Simon, the ex-husband for whom Olivia feels a lingering tenderness. If there is anyone who seems faint and improbable, it is this male character. The world of the book is a woman's world. Men are flickering presences, like candle flames invisible in daylight.
The China they visit is real enough modern China, where pursuit of a fast buck is rapidly supplanting Maoist doctrine and villages previously kept quaint by poverty are losing their looks to modern conveniences. But their family's town is largely unchanged, familiar to Olivia because of all the stories Kwan has told her. And yet there's no chance to drown in its loveliness. The first words out of Kwan's mouth, when, gasping, she catches sight of a beloved childhood friend, are, "Fat! You've grown unbelievably fat!"
Beneath this banter lie the tragedy of a childhood accident, the bloodshed of the opium wars and the discovery of a few battered 19th-century objects that give substance to Kwan's stories. Increasingly the narrative reverts to a century back. Kwan's mental visits to the past are as credible and as vivid as the present. For example, when the Kwan of a former life is trying to escape a Manchu raiding party and pulls clothes off a line before she departs, she thinks of "all the terrible things that happened during the time the laundry had changed from wet to dry."
In such details there is the effortless mix of invention and reliance on reality that makes Tan's fiction so engrossing—a kind of consistency of action that suggests one could ask anything about a character and Tan could answer. She provides what is most irresistible in popular fiction: a feeling of abundance, an account so circumstantial, powerful and ingenious that it seems the story could go on forever.
This section contains 1,188 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)