12:01 PM 23 SEPTEMBER 2017
“The Bonesetter’s Daughter” was my first foray into the work of Amy Tan and though the author’s style is quite engaging, it struck me as something of a ‘prawn cracker’ novel. That is, it looked substantial, but melted during consumption, leaving a rather hollow sense of what might have been. Still, insights into the characters’ experience of oriental culture, permeating their origins in rural China, but also conferring a heritage, tenaciously relevant in the modern United States, kept the story interesting.
The book focuses on the experiences of three women, connected by blood (daughter/mother/grandmother), but separated by generational expectations and the disparate influences of vastly different times and places. From pre-war China, through Hong Kong to contemporary San Francisco, the journey of the Liu maternal line is fraught and runs the risk of being forgotten, until Ruth is confronted by her mother’s advancing dementia. Fortunately, Luling Liu had seen the signs earlier and committed her life-story to paper while her memory was relatively intact. Through this device, Ruth becomes the narrator of her mother’s story and is able to review their relationship in the context of Luling’s past. Moreover, Ruth learns about their mutual roots and is able to reconcile a tragic history with a more positive future, amid her mother’s fading recollections of her own upbringing.
The examination of significant events, which beset the elders and yet percolated through time to deposit consequences on the youngest is a familiar theme and given the similarities in their respective personalities, kept alive the dichotomy of the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate. Yet, by comparison, I found Ruth Lui to be the weak link, locked in a mundane present, in contrast to the steely Luling and her ‘Precious Auntie’, forged in harsh and often brutal circumstances. Perhaps inevitably, there is an additional curiosity value attached to the unfamiliar, but the tantalizing glimpses of the lives of Ruth’s relatives rescued the book from total blandness.
In a wider sense, there is also a perceptible nod to the experience of women, which has seen significant change in some cultures and spheres, but almost glacial evolution in others, most obviously, in this novel, in terms of familial responsibilities. Given the subject matter of course, there is also the possibility that the book may resonate differently between genders, but I don’t think it was necessarily written with solely women readers in mind. Certainly, the spotlight cast on dementia and the sense of loss for sufferers and loved ones alike, is a shared experience that packs a common punch.
On balance, for me, it was an OK read, which didn’t chime with the gushing praise on the cover and promised more than it delivered, but we have another Amy Tan on the shelf and I will give that a go in due course.