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.

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