House of the spirits

Is fiction closer to astrology or history? Justin Wintle balances hard fact and heavenly fancy in two far-eastern family sagas; The Bondmaid by Catherine Lim, Oriel, pounds 5.99; One Thousand Chestnut Trees by Mira Stout, Flamingo, pounds 16.99

Some years ago, returning from the Far East, I had a peculiar experience in Hatchard's, the London bookseller. Standing in front of the fiction table, anxious to discover what everyone had been up to in my absence but still debilitated by dysentery, with my head therefore lighter than a Kyoto parasol, lighter even than a Javan firefly's fitful evanescence, an apparitional thought welled up. Fiction is of the same order as astrology. Like astrologists, novelists seek to impose their make-believe on an unsuspecting public according to rules they themselves have fabricated. So why take what they write so seriously?

As I re-immersed myself in literary culture, this seditious insight receded. Yet, asked to review Catherine Lim, I was reminded of that moment of enlightenment. Is this a criticism of The Bondmaid? I hope not. Rather, it is to draw attention to the remarkable skill of its Singaporean author. The story she tells is conventional enough, by occidental as well as oriental standards. A tiny girl, Han, is sold by her impoverished mother to a Mandarin family. The fortunes of the House of Wu, however, hang precariously by a single thread: the young master, just two years older than Han.

What follows is fatal-attraction chop suey. The two children form an inseparable attachment that their elders, employers and servants do everything in their power to stymie. At length the young master is sent away. He returns a "scholar", fit for betrothal to Li-Li, the ornamental daughter of the even more prestigious House of Ghang. The main line of the House of Wu will be spared, at least for another generation.

But inevitably the bond between the young master and the serving girl reasserts itself. Neither Han's beauty, nor her craving, can remain forever cloaked by her plain garments. And if the reader has a strong premonition of the unhappy denouement, then - allowing for a few strange twists - that premonition is likely to prove correct.

In fiction, as in cuisine, it is the sauce with the meat that satisfies. The Bondmaid is decked out, upstairs and downstairs, with a gallery of characters finely balanced between stereotype and individuality: a sybaritic great-grandfather, for example, now confined to his bed and attended by his vengeful servant Chu; a matriarch who cannot properly sustain her own stern code; a head bondmaid, the sour spinster Choyin, who willingly sustains it for her; an imbecile called Spitface. A whole gamut of deftly painted human props is here.

Even the ever-wilful Han is - for anyone familiar with, say, Gong Li in Raise the Red Lantern - a recognisable type. What animates and humanises Lim's puppets is their superstition. The priest aside, all imagine themselves to be in thrall to gods and spirits. The drama of the protagonists is shadowed by a contest between the near-omnipotent Sky God and the lesser Forgetful Goddess.

Catherine Lim doesn't for a moment suppose the spirit world exists outside of human hopes and fears, but inside, they are real enough. Hers is a version of the Chinese in Singapore set in a semi-recent past untroubled by the Japanese invasion or the Malay Emergency. The only historical alignment is with the present, when we discover that the Wu estate has become a petrochemical plant. Even so, The Bondmaid surpasses the pulp paperback market earmarked by its publisher.

I cared less for One Thousand Chestnut Trees, mainly because it seems chronically undecided as to what it wants to be other than the Korean counterpart of Jung Chang's unmatchable Wild Swans. A young woman, of mixed Korean and Irish-American parentage, leaves New York for some Seoul- searching in her mother's native land. She pieces together a family history which, being determined by the deadliest 20th-century conflicts, is woeful enough. The narrative is split between three voices: the young woman's, her mother's and her grandfather's, and the result issued as a novel.

That classification becomes increasingly arbitrary. The voices blur and there are too many passages of lacklustre travel reportage, including mandatory shopping and foodie paragraphs. Large chunks of Korean history are recycled on flat tyres.

Mira Stout's real concern, in what I suspect is a thinly veiled family memoir, is the mother-daughter relationship. To appease her mother the girl undertakes to visit the chestnuts of the title, a grove planted on a mountain near the border with North Korea to screen a family shrine from soldiers. But although she is foiled by the weather, somehow the journey achieves its objective.

A determined push, and Mira Stout might have got there. Despite an enviable gift for natural description, she has difficulty in shaping her material. Writing novels may indeed be an arcane practice, but for all that a strict one too. How hard the subject-matter presses is incidental.

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