Monday, September 3, 2012

The Hundred Secret Senses- My Thoughts


I came across Amy Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses at a second hand book sale. I had heard of Tan's The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife before, but somehow hadn't been able to read them, so I was somewhat sceptical about picking this book, which happens to be her third. However, my insatiable urge to buy something got the better of me and I soon found myself clutching a slightly worn out copy of The Hundred Secret Senses, with yellowing dog eared pages. And then the book found its way to my bookshelf and lay forgotten for a long time.

I rediscovered it last month, and lost myself in its pages. The Hundred Secret Senses tells the story of Olivia Laguni, born to a Chinese father and an American mother, and the complex relationship she shares with her Chinese half-sister, Kwan. After her father's death, her mother promises to take care of his elder daughter from an earlier marriage who has been living in China- and that was how Kwan came to America. Olivia finds Kwan's presence annoying, frustrating, mostly due to her lack of familiarity with anything western: By the first grade, I had become an expert on public humiliation and shame. Kwan asked so many dumb questions that all the neighbourhood kids thought she had come from Mars...She'd say 'Who this Popeye Sailor Man? Why one eye gone? He bandit?'. Added to this, Kwan also had some rather eccentric ways. She claimed to have 'Yin' eyes through which she could not only see but also communicate with ghosts.

Olivia grows up, constantly embarrassed, always irritated with Kwan. In retaliation, she is often mean, even spiteful to her sister. For example, when Kwan asks her about the American name for the delicious pear fruit they ate one night, Olivia says 'Barf' and covers her mouth to stifle her snickers. Poor Kwan rolls this new word over her mouth and says, 'Wah! What a clumsy word for such a delicate taste!' I was somehow reminded of the relationship between Amir and Hassan in Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner. Amir, convinced that the illiterate Hassan would not be able to learn or appreciate more advanced literature due to his status as a Hazara which ranked low on the Afghan social ladder, would only read out to him the misadventures of Mullah Nasruddin. And whenever Hassan stopped to ask him the meaning of a new word, just like Olivia, he would mock at his ignorance. Like the time Hassan asked him the meaning of the word 'imbecile'. Amir said, Let’s see. ‘Imbecile.’ It means smart, intelligent. I’ll use it in a sentence for you. ‘When it comes to words, Hassan is an imbecile.’ Just like how Hassan never seemed to understand how spiteful Amir was, and how he continued to admire him, Kwan also adores her sister and showers her with love- it would always make Olivia guilty later.

 There is something endearing about Kwan. The way she fusses over the rather selfish inconsiderate Olivia, calling her Libby-Ah all the time (she was never able to say Olivia), or the way she went on about her story from another life about a one-eyed Chinese girl called Nunumu and her American missionary friend who went by the name of Miss Banner. Or the delightful way in which she speaks broken English. Or maybe how she could still continue to like, even love, her half sister despite all the hurt. The more I read, the more I began to dislike the protagonist Olivia. Although I could see traces of myself in her, and it was possible to empathize with her, it was really difficult to like her. Maybe that's why I was more drawn to Kwan's character?

The book's turning point is a strange twist of fate which leads Olivia, her estranged husband Simon, and Kwan make a trip to China. Returning to China after nearly thirty years, Kwan helps Olivia explore her real roots, and it is here that Olivia understands what Kwan means when she keeps talking about ghosts and a hundred secret senses.

The description of the village back in China, Olivia and Simon's courtship, and Kwan's story from the other life are delightful. Whilst I found the story within the story, relating to Kwan's other life slightly weary at the beginning, it soon picked up pace, thanks to certain colourful characters like the missionaries whom the locals called Pastor and Mrs Amen. There is one part of the book where Kwan (thanks to her Yin eyes) has a hilarious conversation with the ghost of her deceased aunt, Big Ma. However, there are other parts which I found quite long winded, and thought could have been better dealt with, for example, a chapter on Kwan's childhood friend Buncake. But it is made tolerable by traces of humour- Big Ma's friend, Du Lili, explains why she chose to remain a spinster, Many times I'm glad I never married. Yes, yes, what a lot of trouble, taking care of a man. I heard that half a man's brain lies between his legs, hah!

I wouldn't call this book a brilliant read, but there is something about it which does strike a chord. I found parts of it dreary, parts of it which didn't really weave into the plot, but there were also parts that did bring a smile to me, and despite the rather bittersweet climax, I was somewhat able to relate to the hundred secret senses. In the beginning, when Olivia asks Kwan what she means, the conversation goes like this:

Olivia: What do you mean, secret sense?
Kwan: Ah, I already tell you so many times. You don't listen? Secret sense not really secret. We just call secret because everyone has, only forgotten. Same kind of sense like ant feet, elephant trunk, dog nose, cat whisker, whale ear, bat wing, clam shell, snake tongue, little hair on flower. Many things, but mix up together.
Olivia: You mean instinct.
Kwan: Stink? Maybe sometimes stinky-
Olivia: Not stink, instinct. It's a kind of knowledge you're born with...

Olivia understands at the end- If people we love die, then they are lost only to our ordinary senses. If we remember, we can find them any time with our hundred secret senses. Indeed, our loved ones do not really die, unless they are erased from our memories, fading away into oblivion. I understood this to mean that as long as we are able to cherish them in some way, some memory, they continue to live on. Profound message, yet I feel the book could have avoided a number of rather tiresome episodes. All in all, it isn't a bad read, but it isn't amazingly brilliant either.

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Monday, September 3, 2012

The Hundred Secret Senses- My Thoughts


I came across Amy Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses at a second hand book sale. I had heard of Tan's The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife before, but somehow hadn't been able to read them, so I was somewhat sceptical about picking this book, which happens to be her third. However, my insatiable urge to buy something got the better of me and I soon found myself clutching a slightly worn out copy of The Hundred Secret Senses, with yellowing dog eared pages. And then the book found its way to my bookshelf and lay forgotten for a long time.

I rediscovered it last month, and lost myself in its pages. The Hundred Secret Senses tells the story of Olivia Laguni, born to a Chinese father and an American mother, and the complex relationship she shares with her Chinese half-sister, Kwan. After her father's death, her mother promises to take care of his elder daughter from an earlier marriage who has been living in China- and that was how Kwan came to America. Olivia finds Kwan's presence annoying, frustrating, mostly due to her lack of familiarity with anything western: By the first grade, I had become an expert on public humiliation and shame. Kwan asked so many dumb questions that all the neighbourhood kids thought she had come from Mars...She'd say 'Who this Popeye Sailor Man? Why one eye gone? He bandit?'. Added to this, Kwan also had some rather eccentric ways. She claimed to have 'Yin' eyes through which she could not only see but also communicate with ghosts.

Olivia grows up, constantly embarrassed, always irritated with Kwan. In retaliation, she is often mean, even spiteful to her sister. For example, when Kwan asks her about the American name for the delicious pear fruit they ate one night, Olivia says 'Barf' and covers her mouth to stifle her snickers. Poor Kwan rolls this new word over her mouth and says, 'Wah! What a clumsy word for such a delicate taste!' I was somehow reminded of the relationship between Amir and Hassan in Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner. Amir, convinced that the illiterate Hassan would not be able to learn or appreciate more advanced literature due to his status as a Hazara which ranked low on the Afghan social ladder, would only read out to him the misadventures of Mullah Nasruddin. And whenever Hassan stopped to ask him the meaning of a new word, just like Olivia, he would mock at his ignorance. Like the time Hassan asked him the meaning of the word 'imbecile'. Amir said, Let’s see. ‘Imbecile.’ It means smart, intelligent. I’ll use it in a sentence for you. ‘When it comes to words, Hassan is an imbecile.’ Just like how Hassan never seemed to understand how spiteful Amir was, and how he continued to admire him, Kwan also adores her sister and showers her with love- it would always make Olivia guilty later.

 There is something endearing about Kwan. The way she fusses over the rather selfish inconsiderate Olivia, calling her Libby-Ah all the time (she was never able to say Olivia), or the way she went on about her story from another life about a one-eyed Chinese girl called Nunumu and her American missionary friend who went by the name of Miss Banner. Or the delightful way in which she speaks broken English. Or maybe how she could still continue to like, even love, her half sister despite all the hurt. The more I read, the more I began to dislike the protagonist Olivia. Although I could see traces of myself in her, and it was possible to empathize with her, it was really difficult to like her. Maybe that's why I was more drawn to Kwan's character?

The book's turning point is a strange twist of fate which leads Olivia, her estranged husband Simon, and Kwan make a trip to China. Returning to China after nearly thirty years, Kwan helps Olivia explore her real roots, and it is here that Olivia understands what Kwan means when she keeps talking about ghosts and a hundred secret senses.

The description of the village back in China, Olivia and Simon's courtship, and Kwan's story from the other life are delightful. Whilst I found the story within the story, relating to Kwan's other life slightly weary at the beginning, it soon picked up pace, thanks to certain colourful characters like the missionaries whom the locals called Pastor and Mrs Amen. There is one part of the book where Kwan (thanks to her Yin eyes) has a hilarious conversation with the ghost of her deceased aunt, Big Ma. However, there are other parts which I found quite long winded, and thought could have been better dealt with, for example, a chapter on Kwan's childhood friend Buncake. But it is made tolerable by traces of humour- Big Ma's friend, Du Lili, explains why she chose to remain a spinster, Many times I'm glad I never married. Yes, yes, what a lot of trouble, taking care of a man. I heard that half a man's brain lies between his legs, hah!

I wouldn't call this book a brilliant read, but there is something about it which does strike a chord. I found parts of it dreary, parts of it which didn't really weave into the plot, but there were also parts that did bring a smile to me, and despite the rather bittersweet climax, I was somewhat able to relate to the hundred secret senses. In the beginning, when Olivia asks Kwan what she means, the conversation goes like this:

Olivia: What do you mean, secret sense?
Kwan: Ah, I already tell you so many times. You don't listen? Secret sense not really secret. We just call secret because everyone has, only forgotten. Same kind of sense like ant feet, elephant trunk, dog nose, cat whisker, whale ear, bat wing, clam shell, snake tongue, little hair on flower. Many things, but mix up together.
Olivia: You mean instinct.
Kwan: Stink? Maybe sometimes stinky-
Olivia: Not stink, instinct. It's a kind of knowledge you're born with...

Olivia understands at the end- If people we love die, then they are lost only to our ordinary senses. If we remember, we can find them any time with our hundred secret senses. Indeed, our loved ones do not really die, unless they are erased from our memories, fading away into oblivion. I understood this to mean that as long as we are able to cherish them in some way, some memory, they continue to live on. Profound message, yet I feel the book could have avoided a number of rather tiresome episodes. All in all, it isn't a bad read, but it isn't amazingly brilliant either.

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