Amy Tan’s fourth novel, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, treads familiar territory for her fans. Like The Joy Luck Club (“Now one of these women has died, and it is up to her daughter to take her place—to learn her mother’s secret story…”) and The Kitchen God’s Wife (“And Winnie angrily determines that she must be the one to tell her daughter, Pearl, about her past—including the terrible truth…”), it is the story of immigrant mothers, their uneasy American daughters, and their painful dancing around the hidden past. And like The Hundred Secret Senses (“an exalting, exultant novel about China and America, love and loyalty, the identities we invent and the true selves we discover along the way”) and the other two mentioned, it is about first and second generation Chinese immigrants and how their pasts in China rise up to haunt their presents in America.
It is a commonplace statement to the point of cliché to say that writers typically have one story to tell, and that they fashion several narratives and situations from this one story. If your life has been dominated by a major change, such as moving from one very distinct culture to another very dissimilar culture, with majorly different ethnic, religious, language, and historical perspectives, it would be no surprise if that played the dominant role in your fiction.
For that reason, immigrant fiction most often tells the very well-trod tale of a culture clash that is also a generational clash. For every hoary old ancestor bleating about how children acted in the Old Country, there are numerous out of control youngsters eagerly coming of age at hyper-assimilation speed.
What makes Tan’s book so compelling is the unbearable sadness that hovers throughout and the exquisite simplicity of her poetic language. The book is comprised of two main characters threaded together to tell of three generations of Chinese women, the first, Ruth Luyi Young, who finds the manuscript of the second, her mother, LuLing Young, and LuLing’s nursemaid, Precious Auntie. Each character takes a turn being the focus of a portion of the book and each part has a separate voice that is at once poetry and history.
Consider the nervous energy of Ruth’s section with her compulsive listing:
So what was Nine? She always organized her day by the number of digits on her hands. Each day was either a five or a ten. She wasn’t rigid about it: add-ons were accommodated on the toes of her feet, room for ten unexpected tasks. Nine, Nine…She could make calling Wendy number One and bump everything back. But she knew that call should be a toe, an extra, an Eleven. What was Nine? Nine was usually something important, a significant number, what her mother termed the number of fullness, a number that also stood for Do not forget, or risk losing all. Did Nine have something to do with her mother? There was always something to worry about with her mother. That was not anything she had to remember in particular. It was a state of mind.
Contrast that then with her mother LuLing’s easy peasant-poetry, which is simple like that of the finest Chinese verses. Think Li ShanYin or Wang Wei with their subtle and uncomplicated melancholy:
These are the things that I know are true:
My name is LuLing Liu Young. The names of my husbands were Pan Kai Jing and Edwin Young, both of them dead and our secrets gone with them. My daughter is Ruth Luyi Young. She was born in a Water Dragon Year and I in a Fire Dragon Year. So we are the same but for opposite reasons.
I know all this, yet there is one name I cannot remember. It is there in the oldest layer of my memory, and I cannot dig it out.
The name is that of the true and real name of her nursemaid and mother, Precious Auntie. This mystery is the ghost at the heart of this story, so concerned with traditional hauntings. It is this name that distracts LuLing all her life, an ache for a memory that is the primal throb pushing her further and further along the forgetful path that is Alzheimer’s. As one forgetfulness begets another, the disease spirals inward, stripping all from LuLing but her past. The book opens with LuLing’s invocation to memory I have just quoted, but it is only a taste of the manuscript that will be found later and that will come to spur her daughter Ruth toward their reconciliatory scenes.
After our first minor fragment of LuLing’s manuscript, the unraveling of Ruth’s conceptions of her relationship with her mother, her lover, and her career takes over the book. They are spooled out for us, the bulk of these disintegrations taking place in one day filled with flashbacks that catch us up on backstory and motivation. Halfway through the book, it is Ruth’s life that is sidetracked as LuLing’s manuscript is presented in full. What was only once considered her mother’s senile ramblings is now the full story, precise and simple, poetic without striving. And what a full story it is: murder, seduction,war, escape, betrayal, transformation. LuLing’s manuscript is the ultimate parental secret: our parents had lives that were strange and full and filled with passion and excitement long before we ever came on the scene.
But Tan’s most wrenching character in the book is the middle-aged daughter herself, Ruth, a book doctor/ghost writer for self-help authors. She uneasily lives with her lover, Art, and his two daughters Dory and Fia and is presented as all neuroses and self effacement, someone you’d see more as a consumer of self-help books than as their creator. As she struggles with her mother’s memory lapses and strives to convince herself that it is only typical old age forgetfulness, the book catalogues her attempts at coping with LuLing’s Alzheimer’s, while her mother is the picture of ignorance being bliss. LuLing is convinced that is others who are forgetful or who are lying to make her look bad or who are just simply mistaken.
It is Tan’s simple device of making Ruth a book doctor that captures the difficult effort Ruth is engaged in, translating the world for her mother as well as presenting her to the world as whole and healthy. Her career demonstrates the friction of desire for the recognition that comes with being a writer with the self-effacement of someone whose natural inclination is to hide. Ruth longs for some kind of recognition that what she does is both difficult and important, yet at the same time she strives to make it look effortless. This is seen as a natural outgrowth of her being her mother's spokesperson due to LuLing's poor English.
In this atmosphere, when LuLing’s guard is down and she begins to confess to her tangled history, Ruth, and to some extent the reader, is left to parse just what is faulty memory and what is truth poking up through the subterfuges of history. It is one of Tan’s strengths that we, like Ruth, at first only believe what is surface, what is most plausible in the narrative. Yet it is also to her power that the later revelations are not stunning mysteries that we pierce as remarkably improbable twists, just natural outgrowths of one circumstance piling on top of another.
The bevy of details that surround LuLing’s descent into Alzheimer’s was particularly keen in my mind, having watched a family member follow that same route. Tan’s description of Ruth going through her mother’s house reminded me of doing the same:
When Ruth returned to LuLing’s apartment, she began to throw away what her mother had saved: dirty napkins and plastic bags, restaurant packets of soy sauce and mustard and disposable chopsticks, used straws and expired coupons, wads of cotton from medicine bottles and the empty bottles themselves.
Oftentimes it seems that it is both the deitrus of the mind and of the body that causes Alzheimer’s sufferers so much difficulty. Tan lets us see the difficulty of this path, of this moving through what seems like random garbage; and in doing so, she presents a realistic portrait of an Alzheimer’s patient with a firm grasp on the past as present facts and faces evaporate.
As a recording, The Bonesetter’s Daughter is a slightly curious case. Most books are solo narration efforts. In this instance, Amy Tan and Joan Chen take turns reading, the author rendering LuLing’s manuscript only, as her voice is a bit more accented than the actress Chen's. Chen reads the more modern American born Ruth’s scenes. Their voices are not so dissimilar that a relationship is impossible to believe, yet they are also distinctly and deliberately not the same person reading both. Neither narrator works to create a distinct personality for their characters through vocalization though that is hardly necessary. There are relatively few scenes of more than three characters at once and most are simply dialogues. Both Chen and Tan deliver the goods in the most straightforward fashion, concealing little. It is a pleasant contrast with the characters they are portraying.