I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The writing is seamless. I think this book paints an almost painfully accurate picture of what it must be like to be caught between two cultures–or more accurately, three, because Chinatown, along with America and China, is represented here like a third country.
Leila, the narrator, is trying to make sense of her sister’s suicide–which provides the framework for the book–and her own place in her family, and her family’s place in the larger scheme of things. Smaller bones and larger bones, all joined by the connective tissue of shared experience, language, memory, culture–except for when things begin to break.
Leila’s sister Ona’s suicide provides this break, and Leila works as best she can to make the rift heal. Only we learn that the rifts are much deeper than death, mainly because of the distance created by experience that cannot be shared. Death is the ultimate experience for which we never receive an explanation, and Ona has left no note, nor are we ever told exactly why she chooses to end her life. But Leila also cannot know what it was like for her mother or her stepfather to come to America for the first time, or what her sister Nina’s life is like in New York.
The book moves back and forth in time, and sometimes I found it difficult to tell where I was in the story. Is Ona dead yet? How much time has passed? How old is Leila now? But I realized, the more I got into the book, that this pattern seems very true to form for a person who’s lost a loved one. There’s the time before the loss, and then the time after the loss, but then another dimension exists, where you’ve forgotten that the bad thing has happened at all–a strange combination of the present and the time before, moving ahead into the future, until you remember again what’s missing, a no-man’s-land of the living.
Leila tells the story in first person–common for a first-time author to choose this voice–but what makes this work extremely well for the story is that we have only Leila’s view, only her version of events. We have only the snatches of memory or character she wishes to provide to us, any character is only developed as far as she takes us. And in this, we can sense her difficulty in trying to hold it all together. She shapes the story for us–connects the bones, the people–but then also shows us that there is no sense, sometimes, in connection. Connection and memory do not provide the answers she seeks. Even language does not hold them together, as people move uncomfortably from Chinese to English as they communicate with each other.
Ng uses the metaphor of bones throughout the book: They did not recollect the bones of Leon’s U.S. “paper father” and send them back to China as promised, and they are lost forever in an unmarked mass grave; her mother, a seamstress, “knew all the seams of a dress they way a doctor knows bones”; Leila and her sister Nina toast “To bones” at a dinner after their sister’s death, remembering a time when their mother cooked their pet doves for dinner and gave them a sack in which to collect the bones: “She came out to check the bag. ’Clean bones.’ She shook it. ’No waste.’” But the larger metaphor seems to be that without the connective tissue, bones mean nothing. The skeleton of the family must have something to hold it together. Leila tries hard to connect, if you will, the shin bone to the thigh bone, and so on. She carries everyone else’s opinions and memories around, not to mention her culture.
I’m finding this more difficult than I thought it would be; as I type, I keep thinking of things to mention, and I could easily go on forever. Let me just say I felt this novel gave me a vivid picture of people trying to create structure in the absence of home or history. In one scene, Leila accompanies her stepfather to the social security office. The clerk goes through the file, only to find different aliases and birthdates–he needs the official name and date to set up payments. The stepfather becomes angry and believes they are trying to cheat him, and she begins to yell at him. “The way you do things is fucked,” she tells him, and then she promises to bring him back with the correct paperwork. At his place, she finds a suitcase full of papers, official documents, letters, notices of rejection for jobs and apartments, photos, notes for business schemes, old money, menus. He even has her mother’s marriage certificate–from her first marriage, to Leila‘s father. Leila cannot understand why he has kept all these documents, some of which don’t even belong to him, but in truth, his scraps of paper or no better or worse than the scraps of history she collects from the people around her, the scraps of understanding she has with regards to her family and even herself: “I’m the stepdaughter of a paper son and I’ve inherited this whole suitcase of lies. All of it is mine. All I have are those memories, and I want to remember them all.”
*photo from Powell’s