Sister act

American dreams and a Chinese fairy godmother. By Michele Roberts
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The Independent Culture
The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan Flamingo, pounds 15.99

Amy Tan's new novel mixes morality tale, folklore and romance, seasoned with both humour and sentiment, to map the tricky route towards self-knowledge and true love. The problems of Olivia, half-Chinese and half- American, are resolved when she scrapes off some of her all-American veneer, burrows into her family history and accepts reincarnation as a handy metaphor for imagining a new and fulfilling future.

One of the advantages of this for the reader, of course, is that, in one sense, the novel never has to stop. One happy ending can be followed by another, and another.

The story works like a dream, with troops of fresh characters always ready in the wings, people changing magically into each other, absent heroines transformed into vibrant presences and all the narrator's wishes coming true. The American Dream, which has lured Olivia's father into immigrating to San Francisco, turns out to deliver what it promises. Now that's happiness.

The fairy godmother who enables the sceptical Olivia to embark on her quest and find her treasure and her prince, is the engaging Kwan, Olivia's half sister, who suddenly pops up and joins the family at the age of eighteen, just after the death of the father she shares with Olivia. Since Tan is determinedly a storyteller, she tucks in wodges of explanatory prose as she rushes along, without worrying about their flatness:

``My father went to Hong Kong to search for work. He left Kwan in the care of his wife's younger sister, Bli Bin-bin, who lived in a small mountain village called Chiangmian. Of course, he sent money for their support - what father would not? But in 1949 the Communists took over China and it was impossible for my father to return for his five year old daughter. So what else could he do? With a heavy heart, he left for America to start a new life and forget about the sadness he left behind.'' Having disposed of psychology, history and politics, the narrator can return to the San Francisco suburbs, where Kwan represents the Chinese self that Olivia rejects.

Amy Tan, oddly enough in a novel concerned with differences of culture and language, doesn't work hard enough with her words, jumping from naturalism straight into magic realism: ``At night ... Kwan would jabber away in Chinese. She kept on talking while I pretended to be asleep. She'd still be yakking when I woke up. That's how I became the only one in our family who learned Chinese. Kwan infected me with it. I absorbed her language through my pores while I was sleeping.'' If you can swallow that, you can swallow the rest of the novel, which jerks between the wise, engaging Kwan talking-funny-like-foreigners-do and recounting her past lives to Olivia in flawless English (to represent flawless Chinese).

Kwan, who can see and talk to ghosts all over the place, becomes Olivia's guide to finding her lost past, her lost memories. Just as well, since Olivia is living a soulless life with her lover Simon, whose desperate inoffensiveness is summed up by anxiously regular visits to the gym: keep fit and fit in.

When this relationship falls apart, Olivia and Simon decide to script a different vision and to visit China. Kwan's past life, of devilish derring- do and missionary mayhem, intersects satisfyingly with the present, culminating in operatic and melodramatic rescues in ancient caves.

The novel is most compelling and alive when the two half sisters are sparring and squabbling. Tan has a great ear for feminine chitchat, its spikiness and hilarity, its mockery and teasing, its mingled love and hate, its skirmishes, advances and retreats. Only in these dialogues does the novel lift off, perhaps because they allow the two sides of the narrator (and author) to be expressed.

This rich conflict of ways of talking is suppressed when Olivia is telling the story. She's too bland and repressed. She sews up the ending very firmly indeed: ``I think Kwan intended to show me the word is not a place but the vastness of the soul. And the soul is nothing more than love, limitless, endless, all that moves us towards knowing what is true.''