Books: Plain tales from China

Amanda Mitchison finally loses patience with the ugly duckling who grew into a straight-A swan; Fallen Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah, Michael Joseph, pounds 16.99

Adeline Yen Mah was born "fifth daughter", the lowest of the low in Chinese family hierarchy. The birth killed her mother, who died shortly afterwards of puerperal fever, thus branding the baby as unlucky. Adeline's father, whose decision not to allow a nurse to care for his wife may have caused her death, never forgave his daughter.

Not the most propitious start to life, but the family - living in the 1930s in the Chinese port city of Tianjin - were prosperous business people and there were devoted grandparents and lovely, loving Aunt Baba to play surrogate mother. But ... enter the evil stepmother Niang, a young, beautiful Eurasian who gives all her stepchildren Western names. When the family moves to Shanghai, she takes control, filling the house with flock wallpaper and red velvet sofas and introducing austerity programmes for the stepchildren - no pocket money, no fancy foods, shaven heads for the boys, no speaking at table unless spoken to, no friends allowed in the house.

Niang's own two progeny are treated quite differently. And, of course, her rule embitters and divides. Relations between the step-siblings are invidious, with Adeline at the very bottom of the pecking order, receiving intermittent friendship from her nearest brother, James.

The only solace comes from her grandfather, and from loving Aunt Baba with whom Adeline shares a bedroom. Baba feeds the little girl preserved plums and encourages her to work hard at school, where she always seems to be top of the class.

Finally, in 1948, after a particularly vicious row with Niang, Adeline is despatched to a convent boarding school 1,000 miles away in Tianjin, where the civil war between the communist and Kuomintang armies is now raging. Her father insists that she must learn to change her spoilt ways and realise her worth, or rather her lack of it. Grandfather and Aunt Baba are prohibited from writing to her. She receives no visits, and no letters. In the meantime, the family set up a new life in Hong Kong.

Eventually, after Tianjin has fallen to the communists, Adeline is rescued by an aunt and brought to Hong Kong. But soon she finds herself back in another boarding school where she stays for several years, again receiving no letters or visits, and almost never going home for holidays.

Academically, little Adeline continues to shine. Eventually her father, now one of the most successful Chinese businessmen in Hong Kong, agrees to send her to England to train as a doctor. Later she emigrates to America, and the rest of the book traces Adeline's successive attempts to win the affection of members of her family.

The book ends with her father and Niang dead, and Adeline discovering that her stepmother has fixed the family inheritance so that Adeline will receive nothing. Later, Adeline finds her father's original will, which includes her. She shows it to her brother James, who is most ambivalent and stands to lose from any changes. And here the narrative stops - we do not find out whether he does the decent thing and helps her. So we are left dangling, a state which is appropriate considering that unfinished business is so much the stuff of unhappy families and that this autobiography is also, one suspects, an open letter to Adeline Yen Mah's siblings.

One of the main components of Adeline's misery was the reserve and formality of Chinese society. None of the children, even in adult life, was able to confide their problems to their father. Even Aunt Baba and the grandfather were struck dumb by convention - the grandfather left cowed and penniless, unable to ask for pocket money from Niang, and unable to confess his difficulties to his son.

A similar reserve imbues the writing of Adeline Yen Mah. There are a few moments of relief - the beautiful Chinese aphorisms that head each chapter and sprinkle the rest of the text, the descriptions of occasional moments when she talks with her grandfather or watches the boats in Hong Kong harbour from her boarding school.

But overall this is a grim, unforgettable tale, starkly told. The impression is of a solemn little rock of a girl - neat, tidy, clever, but numbed inside by the experience. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Adeline went on to qualify as an anaesthetist. And just as the wealth of Adeline's father gives an edge to the deprivations undergone by the family, so the restraint of the narrative somehow makes the story all the more replete with blame. There is no rationalisation, no amateur psychologising, and no attempt to look at what really motivated her stepmother, or at why her father never saw what was happening and never defended his children. lt is as if the author were thinking "Just the facts, just the facts ..."

Perhaps this is a good thing. Some tales are better told plain, and a more elaborate version might lose our sympathy. Even as it is, there are moments when Adeline can tire a little: with her worn clothes and her unremitting A grades, she never herself behaves dishonourably or confesses to unpalatable emotions. And I have to confess that, just as no one of true human feeling can read the death of Beth in Little Women without weeping with laughter, so the account of Adeline's beloved scrawny little pet duckling being mauled by the family Alsatian made me snigger.

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