Travelling light in Imelda-land

The Last Time I Saw Mother by Arlene J. Chai Headline Review, pounds 16.99

Arlene J Chai's first novel comes replete with all the publisher's devices in place, from solicited puff (''A remarkable first novel'' coos Amy Tan on the front cover) to seductive author photo (the appealing Ms Chai props up her chin on long-fingered hands, as so many first authors seem bidden to do). Yet I chose the Chai for a review because she passed a simple test: read 30 pages and see if you want to turn to page 31. This, despite the standard female-first-novel subject matter: a young woman is summoned back to the family home to be told a secret about her past.

Chai's novel is distinguished firstly by her genuine talent for popular fiction. Her writing is both quick and smooth: characters are instantly identifiable to us by thumbnail description and lively dialogue that possesses the easy grace and instant recognisability of the cinema. "Travel light," says a cousin to the main character, Caridad, towards the end of the story. "Don't be like Ligaya [another main character], she carries too much baggage." It is almost as if the author has applied this dictum to her own writing. This is a light book, in the best sense.

The story unfolds skilfully. The exact nature of Caridad's secret and its place in a rainbow of lives is told through a relay race of female narrators: each one picks up the baton of the story where the other left off. Yet each character/ storyteller emerges complete in herself. From Caridad's "mother", the rigid, unbending Thelma, we learn of the private pain and social discomfort of infertility. From Emma, her sister, we glimpse a mirror image of life's possibilities: too many children and not enough money. From Ligaya, a sister/cousin, we hear of compromises of the soul. But in all these women there is a stoic and moving acceptance of their fate.

There is also a lively and anguished insight into the history of the modern Philippines. How many of us know anything substantial about the Philippines beyond tales of Imelda Marcos's 3,000 shoes or Cory Aquino's assumption of the mantle of her dead husband? Here we are given not only the story of the Japanese occupation and associated hardships, but a telling portrait of the tensions and possibilities of a country founded on Chinese, Filipino and Spanish heritage and traditions.

Chai now lives in Australia. But The Last Time I Saw Mother chiefly resembles the grand, mainly female, narratives currently so popular in the States, as seen in the work of Terry McMillan, Amy Tan herself or Maxine Hong Kingston. Like these authors, Chai puts the exotic in a vernacular we can all understand: totally recognisable yet appealingly foreign. There is no hidden political agenda, however soft, as there might be in an Alice Walker novel. This is story- telling, pure and simple.

Its only main fault is sentimentality - or perhaps that's its virtue. For if Chai is lucky, she will, like Tan and McMillan, vault one day into movieland. And since Imelda's 3,000 shoes do make an appearance in her novel, it guarantees future headaches for some Hollywood prop executive.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there