Boyd Tonkin: Cruel mothers, Chinese whispers

The week in books
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Late last year, for the short interview that runs beside this column, I talked to the American legal academic and detective novelist Jed Rubenfeld. Calm and courteous, he told me about the pleasant view from his house in New Haven, Connecticut, home of Yale University. He mentioned his need to escape his desk in order to spend more time with his two fast-growing teenage children. Little did I know then that these innocent details of Ivy League domestic routine came from the heart of (if you credit a tribe of foam-flecked pundits) the most infamous household in the Western world.

For Professor Rubenfeld, whose novels The Interpretation of Murder and The Death Instinct delightfully stir Sigmund Freud into the mix of period crime, is married to his colleague on the Yale law faculty, Professor Amy Chua. And Amy Chua has to many thousands of bloggers, columnists and assorted opinion-pushers suddenly emerged as a sinister, mythical mash-up of Dragon Empress, Wicked Witch, Snow Queen and – above all – Cruel Mother. Selective editing and skewed presentation have contrived to turn her memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Bloomsbury, £16.99) into a child-abuse handbook that tells parents how to hothouse their little devils into class-topping, violin-wielding, race-winning prodigies of super-high achievement via a regime of overwork, insults, punishments and threats. Read the reactions and you will conclude that the Cruella de Chua approach makes Spartans look like cissies.

Or so the story goes. Why not do something suitably nerdy and dutiful, and read the book? Because it's a treat from first to last: ruefully funny, endlessly self-deprecating, riven with ironies, as Chua offloads her insecurities onto daughters Sophia and Lulu and then flays herself into paroxysms of guilt and stress for doing so. A heartless blueprint for breeding neurotic billionaires? Unlikely, as most of the family drama stems from Sophia's progress on the piano and Lulu's on the violin – a pretty quixotic obsession for any parent hung up on material success. Besides, any woman who thinks that practising fiendishly tough pieces by Bartok and Prokofiev with a succession of loopy musical gurus has more of a point than playdates and sleepovers will win the votes of many.

The book's climax arrives not with over-achieving success but farcical failure. Rebel Lulu erupts in a nuclear tantrum at a Moscow restaurant: "I hate the violin. I HATE my life." As Chua reflects, "I'd made a career out of spurning the kind of Western parents who can't control their kids. Now I had the most disrespectful, rude, violent, out-of-control kid of all." Then a road to reconciliation opens. Now Chua even grants her smiling approval when Lulu wants to try her hand at "improv". Improv? Ye gods! Dragon lady, where are you when your daughter really needs you?

Do we simply want upbeat platitudes in accounts of family life, or else their mirror-image in fantasies of unmaternal sadism, and not the truth about love as anxious projection (Freud might have a lot to say) and conscience-shredding ambivalence? Maybe Chua's major crime is not to advocate a "Chinese" model of high-pressure parenting – in reality, as she admits, one shared by plenty of migrant communities – but to sound more like a grouchy oriental Philip Larkin than our feelgood culture allows: "The truth is I'm not good at enjoying life. It's not one of my strengths. I have a lot of to-do lists and hate massages and Caribbean vacations." Chua's Eyeore-ish voice is a knock-out.

Much as I relished this memoir, all the attendant chatter – with its dismal stereotypes of "Chinese women" – left a bitter taste. To refresh my literary palate, I picked up Eileen Chang's wonderful mid-20th-century romances Love in a Fallen City (Penguin Modern Classics). In a preface, the Shanghai writer – then still in her early twenties – ponders the sort of woman who would thrive amid the trauma and turmoil of her age. "In the savage wilderness," she writes, "the woman who comes to power is not, as most people imagine, a wild rose with big, black, burning eyes, whip in hand, ready to strike at any moment. That's just a fantasy made up by city-folk in need of new stimulation." Indeed. So why do we crave the whip-wielding witch? Over to you, Dr Freud...

Time for a monstrous sequel?

Death-defying characters mean eternal business. In May, Jeffery Deaver publishes his Dubai-set James Bond (right) novel, Carte Blanche. A Sherlock Holmes tale by Anthony Horowitz is due in the autumn. But other iconic figures could do with a contemporary spin. Such as the test-tube baby of Mary Shelley's Dr Frankenstein, arriving on stage at the National Theatre soon. For all his plentiful previous revivals, a 21st century fictional take on Victor's creation - at large in London, perhaps - might still electrify readers. Whose imagination could make modern lightning strike? Will Self? Jeanette Winterson? The old monster would at least make a change from 007 re-treads.

Zen and the art of adaptation

Be careful what you wish for. A decade must have passed since I first inquired when the late Michael Dibdin's Zen mysteries might eventually reach, and adorn, the large or small screen. Last Sunday, the BBC 1 trio of dramatisations – Vendetta, Cabal, Ratking – ended their nattily crafted run, with Rufus Sewell as the cool Venetian sleuth and his inamorata Tania (Caterina Murino) still simmering away as lusciously as a pan of spicy puttanesca sauce. So what's not to love? Adaptation always means selection. In the BBC series, the Roman setting shines but Zen's cases thrust him into a generic provincial Italy of toffs and thugs rather than – as in the novels – a flavoursome variety of regions and locales whose idiosyncrasies drive the plot. At which point, the swooning army of Sewell - and Murino – devotees will probably just splutter: get a life. OK: but the gaps in the script ensure that the novels – just re-issued by Faber – have extra thrills in store for newcomers to Zen in print. If you haven't, read them now.