I’m a sucker for magical realism and emotionally-driven stories, and I’ve loved Amy Tan since I was first assigned The Joy Luck Club in high school. My personal favourite of hers is The Kitchen God’s Wife, but this third book is one that I’ve picked up and half-browsed a few times, never quite making it fast the first chapter.
Finally, though, I’ve managed to sit down and read The Hundred Secret Senses. The premise is this: Olivia’s father died when she was young, and on his deathbed told his wife about another child he had left behind in China. In order to honour his dying wish, Olivia’s family brought over the eighteen-year-old Kwan to live with them. Kwan is a good ten years older than Olivia, and raises her almost more than her actual mother, telling her about Chinese superstitions, teaching her Mandarin, and talking to her about the ghosts she sees with her yin eyes.
There are a few different plot threads through this book, much like in most Tan novels, and Kwan’s stories of her ‘previous life’ are definitely my favourite. Chinese history isn’t something I’ve ever learned much about, but especially once a year of her previous life showed up in the narrative, I was able to look up a little more about the Taiping Rebellion. Even without the initial context, though, the details are engrossing and the relationship between Nunumu and Miss Banner is amazing to read about. I was significantly less sold on the parallels between Miss Banner and Olivia; however, part of this is that Olivia just isn’t that interesting a character. She’s a solid narrator, consumed by self-doubt, but she dips heavily into ‘unlikeable’ at times. I’m usually all for unlikeable characters, but between the way she treats Kwan and her jealous obsession with Simon’s previous lover, it’s hard to muster up the compassion for her that I want to.
I also am not sure how to feel about Kwan as a character. I love her personality, her sunny disposition, and the way she balances between China and America, always an outcast. But it’s frustrating to see characters with developmental disabilities repeatedly fill certain roles; this should have been Kwan’s story, not Olivia’s. Furthermore, the only label we ever get for her is vague; the ‘r-word’ is used on her, and it’s implied that she might have Down’s Syndrome, but beyond that she’s never given much. It’s nice that she’s a good sister, but she suffers so much indignity from the people around her that I kind of wanted to see her lose her temper or be angry once in a while. (I did like that she was married, though; so often we’re desexualized.)
Overall, I liked The Hundred Secret Senses, but I primarily liked its historical aspects – like with Tan’s other novels, I learned about history I never would have been told otherwise. However, the characters are a little lacking, and from a disability perspective, it feels – at best – a bit dated.