Tan re­turns at top of her game

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Gail Perry

AN in­trigu­ing land­scape paint­ing gives name to, and reap­pears through­out pop­u­lar Cal­i­for­nia writer Amy Tan’s highly an­tic­i­pated sixth novel. In this saga where se­crets and de­ceit chal­lenge self-knowl­edge and love, the paint­ing moves the plot for­ward, re­veals char­ac­ter and projects and re­flects the un­du­la­tions of choice and fate. Tan’s fans have waited eight long years since her last novel, Sav­ing Fish from Drown­ing, while she re­cov­ered from de­bil­i­tat­ing Lyme disease. For­tu­nately, she’s back, and near the top of her game. Her most ar­dent fans will have al­ready down­loaded Tan’s 2011 dig­i­tal re­lease — longer than a short story, shorter than a novella — Rules for Vir­gins, which now, with lit­tle mod­i­fi­ca­tion, forms a chap­ter in The Val­ley of Amaze­ment. Ea­ger read­ers, then, have al­ready had a whiff of Shang­hai’s early 20th-cen­tury first-class cour­te­san houses where blos­soms and stems merge and cou­ples ex­plore such po­si­tions as “Climb­ing the Moun­tain,” “Dou­ble-Winged Bird” and “Seag­ull Wings on the Edge of a Cliff.” These read­ers will have in­di­rectly met young Vi­o­let, through whose eyes — some­times Amer­i­can, some­times Chi­nese — we pri­mar­ily ex­pe­ri­ence the full story. They will have been in­tro­duced to the wise, fa­tal­ist Magic Gourd, Vi­o­let’s at­ten­dant, teacher and true, if not real, mother. As in The Joy Luck Club (1989), The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991) and The Bone­set­ter’s Daugh­ter (2001), Tan ex­am­ines the edges and mesh of Amer­i­can and Chi­nese cul­ture and mother-daugh­ter relationships, this time through three gen­er­a­tions, mostly con­sid­ered from a Chi­nese set­ting. This is a story where moth­ers lose and some­times search for their chil­dren. Daugh­ters find other moth­ers. Light is shone on na­ture and nur­ture. And love is tested and changed with ex­pe­ri­ence. The story has im­me­di­acy and in­ti­macy as told by Vi­o­let from age 7 to 41. Hers is an en­gag­ing per­spec­tive, but hardly a re­li­able one, as she lacks un­der­stand­ing or all of the per­ti­nent facts. We share her pre­co­cious child­hood in the cour­te­san house of her mother, Lulu/Lu­cia, a prag­matic, Shang­haine­ses­peak­ing Amer­i­can who strad­dles east and west. We’re there when Vi­o­let’s haughty self-per­cep­tion is shaken upon learn­ing her fa­ther is Chi­nese, and when du­plic­i­tous ac­tions wrench her from Lulu, re­vers­ing young Vi­o­let’s for­tune in the world. There are the sem­i­nal men of her life — Loy­alty Fang, Bos­son Ed­ward Ivory III (whose spir­i­tual guide is Walt Whit­man) and Per­pet­ual of the Sheng fam­ily. And there is a daugh­ter, Flora. There’s also the dan­ger­ous foray from Shang­hai to re­mote Moon Pond Vil­lage, which may well be in the Val­ley of Amaze­ment. Tan plays with names. Are they em­blem­atic? Ironic? Prophetic?

Vi­o­let’s ex­pe­ri­ences par­al­lel those of Lulu, in­clud­ing in­sid­i­ous events that cleave Flora from her. Tan re­minds us through­out that peo­ple may change their name, dress, home, even the look of their face, but can never es­cape them­selves. Struc­turally jar­ring to the story are two late chap­ters that re­vert 28 years, voiced by Lulu at age 16. It’s from this van­tage point, how­ever, that we learn what Vi­o­let doesn’t know and can bet­ter as­sess Lulu’s na­ture and ac­tions. The last chap­ter rapidly spans 13 years and rein­tro­duces Flora. It has the mak­ings of a wor­thy se­quel. A char­ac­ter com­ments on the paint­ing The Val­ley of Amaze­ment: “The colours are rich, yet sub­tle.” The novel, too, is flush with in­ten­sity, but it’s hardly un­der­stated. It brims with bold char­ac­ters liv­ing and speaking larger-than-life life-truths. Ul­ti­mately, it un­der­scores the sen­ti­ment that though we con­front life alone, love will sus­tain us, even re­deem us.

Gail Perry is a Win­nipeg writer.

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