Amy Tan | Critical Review by Ruth Pavey

This literature criticism consists of approximately 2 pages of analysis & critique of Amy Tan.
This section contains 580 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Ruth Pavey

Critical Review by Ruth Pavey

SOURCE: A review of The Hundred Secret Senses, in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 9, No. 390, p. 38.

In the following review, Pavey considers Tan's unifying device in The Hundred Secret Senses unconvincing, but asserts that, "this does not detract from the great appeal of her character, Kwan (who combines saintly good humour with wit, practicality and guile), or the enjoyable liveliness of her style."

Kwan, the co-heroine of The Hundred Secret Senses, has yin eyes, second sight. At least she thinks she has, which is why she talks of relating to ghosts as an everyday experience. There is nothing fey about Kwan. Having spent the first 18 years of her life in rural China, she takes uncomplainingly to being uprooted to join her dead father's new family in San Francisco. But how is her much younger half-sister to accommodate Kwan's hotline to the past? From the first sentence of this novel, Amy Tan sets up a tension between Kwan's Chinese-born certainties and the distancing ironies of Olivia's San Francisco inheritance.

To begin with, Olivia, or Libby-ah, has a firm grip on the narration, which begins when she is already well over 30 and married to Simon. There seems little chance of her, or the reader, getting caught by Kwan's fancies. It is not long, however, before Kwan muscles in. She takes us back to a former life, in 1864, when she was a servant to an English missionary, Miss Banner, at the time of the Taiping rebellion. For the reader this is initially fine, a good story into which we dip. But for Libby-ah herself, Kwan's stories have always represented a strain—a long childhood of traction away from her own reality, back to the culture her father left.

Not only does Olivia have Kwan's past, or pasts, to put into the balance of her brittle, first-generation American life. There is another ghost. Before meeting her, Simon was in love with a girl who died young. Elsie, adopted by Mormon parents, had been convinced she was really Elza, of Polish-Jewish descent. Her unquiet presence has always disturbed Olivia's marriage.

By halfway through the novel, when Kwan, Olivia and Simon set off for China, there are already more than enough spirits clamouring to be put to rest. At this point, the strain Libby-ah has always felt about Kwan's unusual gifts starts to affect the reader. Apprehensions of a detour to Auschwitz prove unfounded, but it becomes clear that we too are being asked to accept the possibility that Kwan was indeed the servant girl and Olivia was Miss Banner. Like Kwan in the caves of Guilin, the last part of this story gets a little lost before returning to a favourite theme of Tan's: hope for the future, embodied in the relationship between mother and daughter.

As a device for meshing several different periods into one fiction, yin eyes may not be as convincing as the straightforward use Tan made of memory in The Kitchen God's Wife. But this does not detract from the great appeal of her character, Kwan (who combines saintly good humour with wit, practicality and guile), or the enjoyable liveliness of her style.

In a thoughtful book about being an orphan, the American writer Eileen Simpson observes that most Americans are more or less orphans, immigrants missing their past. The persistent themes of Amy Tan's novels seem to bear that out. In this one alone there are at least six orphans, and hardly anyone leading a settled, secure life.

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This section contains 580 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Ruth Pavey
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