BOOK REVIEW / The yang ones

THE HUNDRED SECRET SENSES by Amy Tan, Flamingo pounds 15.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
OLIVIA YEE was born in California, is thoroughly Westernised and only five years old when, on their father's death, her orphaned half-sister Kwan is brought straight from China to join the household in Daly City. At 17, Kwan is pushy, embarrassing, over-affectionate and nothing like the skinny baby in the photograph: "not exactly the starving waif Mom pictured, or the glamorous teenage sister I had in mind".

But all this pales when Kwan begins to tell Olivia her "forbidden secrets": she has "yin eyes" and can see and commune with the dead; she swapped bodies with another little girl who drowned many years ago; she has lived other lives, can diagnose ailments with a handshake, heal with a touch.

Olivia doesn't want to know - "for most of my childhood I had to struggle not to see that world as Kwan described it ... I saw what I didn't want to believe." And yet, fated to share a bedroom with Kwan and lie awake grudgingly listening to her stories of the yin world, Olivia finds herself infected, suffused by her sister's ghostly perceptions. Almost against her will, she finds herself absorbing Chinese. "Kwanness" has seeped in through her pores ("she pushed her Chinese secrets into my brain"). Not especially interested in her Chinese heritage, Olivia just wants to lead a normal American life, but Kwan is always there "like an orphan cat kneading on my heart".

Tan's third novel - burning with an unquestioning, almost arrogant energy which forces you to believe every word she says - is a book about struggle. Apart from the obvious and beautifully delineated conflict between the sisters, there's the permanent, exhausting struggle between the yin and the yang worlds, the dead and the living, the ghosts and the future, the possibility of hope and the loss of that possibility. Most acutely of all, it is about the dislocating, alienating struggle between two cultures.

Thirty years later and in the process of amicable separation from her husband Simon, Olivia still has Kwan (now 50 and complete with husband and stepsons) kneading on her heart. Blindly, irritatingly determined that Olivia and Simon should get back together, Kwan engineers a "work trip" for the three of them to her birthplace in China. Only there do Kwan's years of "yin" dreams and Olivia's troubled past and confused present and future finally seem to collide and, somewhat chillingly, mesh.

But The Hundred Secret Senses, though swimming with strong magic and tragedy and comedy, is not without its little disappointments. The - ultimately vital - "yin" dreams, as recounted by Kwan, claim large chunks of the prose, yet don't really gain in interest or momentum until very close to the end, causing a lively narrative to sag. I longed instead for even more of Kwan - a gorgeously feisty portrait of a Chinese-American housewife, chattering as loudly about the mole on her husband's testicles as the price of pickle-turnips. Alive from her very first utterance, as blithely at home in her cacophonous world of spirits and prophecies as she is in the supermarket checkout queue, Kwan is a breathtaking creation by Amy Tan.

And then there are Tan's men - or, more to the point, there aren't. Olivia's estranged husband Simon is a major element of the novel, but the little we know of him is not convincing. Her women fairly sparkle and sing off the page, while the men seem more like hired escorts, snipped from the same uniform cloth, fashioned to do as they're told. Simon and Olivia talk and argue, but there's no spontaneous tension, no sense of conversations that could go either way - the result being that little of it rings true. It almost doesn't matter - Tan is so good at injecting her prose with emotional momentum anyway, so brilliant at evoking every nuance of culture and landscape - but one is left with a fleeting worry that this might be a novel engineered exclusively for women, about women, by women.

That said, The Hundred Secret Senses is a fierce, blinding evocation of a world beyond the perceptions we normally take for granted. It knows precisely where it's going, what it's doing and, like a rabbit paralysed by a headlight beam, the reader stops dead in its glare - and maybe only later wonders if it was anything more than a sleek, defiantly shiny car that passed on an otherwise dark night.