Amy Tan | Critical Review by Donna Nurse

This literature criticism consists of approximately 2 pages of analysis & critique of Amy Tan.
This section contains 568 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Donna Nurse

Critical Review by Donna Nurse

SOURCE: A review of The Hundred Secret Senses, in Maclean's, Vol. 108, No. 45, November 6, 1995, p. 85.

In the following review, Nurse asserts, "Kwan's dreams comprise the most skillfully realized sections of [The Hundred Secret Senses, mingling elements of gothic romance and folktale with historical chronicle."]

In Amy Tan's earlier novels, The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife, individual personal histories powerfully influence future family dynamics. Even though traditional Chinese superstitions about luck and fate shape both stories, neither work strays far from the realistic mode. In Tan's latest novel, however, ghosts replace memories as the link between past and present. With The Hundred Secret Senses, Tan ventures into the realm of spirits and reincarnation through her favorite character type: a Chinese-American woman who is ill at ease with her racial makeup. Olivia Bishop, a 38-year-old commercial photographer, feels that her life is devoid of meaningful ties. She still longs for the attention of a neglectful mother who was too busy seeking husbands to meet her daughter's needs. Olivia has recently separated from her husband, Simon Bishop, with whom she shares a small freelance business, and whom she accuses of providing her with nothing but "emotional scraps."

Olivia was born to a Chinese father and an American mother. She has spent all of her life in California, but she lacks satisfying attachments to either American or Chinese tradition. Her adoring half-sister, Kwan, tries to introduce her to the richness of her Chinese heritage. But from childhood, Olivia has felt mostly embarrassment about and contempt for Kwan, who is 12 years her senior and was born and raised in China. Olivia resents the way Kwan's foreign attitudes and beliefs uncomfortably highlight her own racial differences. She especially loathes hearing Kwan speak of her "yin" eyes, which she invokes with her "hundred secret senses" in order to see and communicate with spirits. Nevertheless, Kwan's ghost-filled visions eventually invade Olivia's psyche. Olivia complains that her half-sister has "planted her imagination into mine."

Kwan's dreams comprise the most skillfully realized sections of the novel, mingling elements of gothic romance and folktale with historical chronicle. Tan summons remote landscapes and lifetimes with incomparable ease. According to Kwan, the dreams reveal her former life as a one-eyed maiden named Nunumu who lived with foreign missionaries in China during the mid-19th century. The book is utterly mesmerizing when Kwan recites the events surrounding the opium trade and the rule of the Manchus.

Tan moves back and forth between Kwan's past life experiences and Olivia's story. Unfortunately, after Kwan's dream passages, Olivia's speeches often strike a discordantly mundane note. Even so, Olivia's story contains several memorable episodes, many of which involve hilarious cultural clashes between the two sisters. Tan also displays a talent for pointing out the absurdities of exuberant Americanism: she describes how Olivia's mother once won "a county fair prize for growing a deformed potato that had the profile of Jimmy Durante."

The two stories come together after Simon and Olivia travel to China on a final joint assignment, bringing along Kwan as an interpreter. In Asia, Olivia's desires and Kwan's ghosts progress towards a startling climax. In The Hundred Secret Senses, the spirit world proclaims the existence of a collective, living past. And, in a way, for Tan, storytelling accomplishes the same end. It helps forge a shared mythology and creates a sense of belonging to a past and a people.

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This section contains 568 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Donna Nurse
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