Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Amy Tan: The Kitchen God’s Wife

A long time ago I read The Joy Luck Club and really liked it, but for some reason I never got around to reading more Amy Tan. However, the other day as I sat in the library working on job applications I just happened to be next to section T, and spotted the colourful covers out of the corner of my eye. So I plucked one and borrowed it (and made a mental note to some day read Quicksand by Tanisaki, but I got a deppresso-vibe off it so wasn’t in the mood that day).

The Kitchen God’s Wife is about Pearl’s mother Winnie, who has never told her daughter all the secrets about her former life, her Chinese life, when she was married to an abusive sadistic man. In classic Tan morality the secrets taint the relationship between mother and daughter and prevent them from understanding one another, so Pearl in turn has never told her mother about her MS diagnosis. However, other family members know and want mother and daughter to clear the air, so pressure is put on Winnie to come clean.

The greatest part of the book is therefore narrated by Winnie, who tells us about a life in a China that is now gone, about being the daughter of a rich man’s second wife, about being sent off to live with relatives, about being married off and discovering hell, about losing children and about war. I think Tan does a fabulous job of crossing that gap between Eastern and Western thinking – possibly it is her fellow Chinese-Americans who benefit the most from this, but her insights into a way of thinking and living that is very alien to us are educational to anyone. She is also a skilled storyteller and writer, plain and simple, and her books are easy and pleasant to read, despite the harrowing themes.

That said, I think her stories are too similar to stand up to binge reading, which is when you read everything an author has written that the library (or book shop, if you’re flush and have no shortage of shelf space) has available. (Note that I base this on having read two books only. So take it with a generous fistful of salt, I suppose.) I often binge read authors, but I don’t really recommend it. All the novels blur together, and you start getting annoyed with the author for “always writing the same thing”, which is ridiculous, because that is what a good writer does, writes about what he or she knows. Although Fay Weldon? She deserves the annoyance. Sorry. I’ve stayed annoyed with her for more that 15 years now.


Windy said...

I'm binge reading Tan books right now, and I agree, they are the same story over and over. Bonesetters Daughter is the same as the other two you read. Whats up with the American born daugheters marrying white guys who are stingy and dismissive of their wives? Occurs in several books.

bani said...

Possibly it's therapeutic. ;)