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by Janie Chang
A young Chinese woman watches a funeral procession, and realizes that it is her own. As her tiny daughter mourns the loss of her mother, the woman wonders why she’s still trapped on Earth instead of moving on into the afterlife. The three parts of her soul – the yang, the yin, and the hun - explain, she must relive her life and uncover the wrongs for which she must make amends before she can move on. Song Leiyin, as the woman now remembers she was once called, was an idealistic teenager who defied her father and betrayed her husband, but she has one last chance to make things right. Should Leiyin fail, she will become a hungry ghost, and she’ll be forced to wander the earth forever.
Leiyin was born in the early twentieth century, and the first half of the novel, focused on her life, takes place during the late 1920s. It’s one of China’s politically turbulent periods – the monarchy has been abolished and a new republic established, but increasingly left-wing revolutionaries and the invasion of the Japanese in 1932 make her life increasingly difficult. As the educated daughter of a wealthy family, Leiyin has a strong independent streak, but her father’s traditional ways restrict her life. At times, she comes across as extremely spoiled, but I also found her situation very sympathetic because many of the things she wants – a college education, a chance to teach- are things that most American women take for granted today.
The great love of Leiyin’s life is a revolutionary poet and translator named Hanchin. Leiyin’s passion blinds her to Hanchin’s faults and the dangers that his political views bring to his associates. She practically throws herself at him. He is the architect of her downfall and brings about many of her sorrows, but she still clings to him. It would be so easy for her story to become a cautionary melodrama, but somehow Leiyin, in spite of her selfishness and obliviousness, remains compelling and likeable. Maybe this is because we, the readers, know that she’s already dead and that she’s paying for her sins, even as she revisits them with the three parts of her soul.
I don’t know much about traditional Chinese cosmology and religious traditions, so I found the concept of a multi-part soul fascinating. Each aspect of it takes on a different personality; her yang looks and acts like a stern, traditional Chinese scholar while hun is an amorphous, shining light of wisdom. Once Leiyin has finished reviewing her life, she must intervene in the world of the living – but as a ghost, she can neither speak nor move physical objects. She eventually realizes that the only way she can communicate to the living is through their dreams, but they must first dream of her and there’s no guarantee they’ll remember her message in the morning. The challenges of navigating the in-between world and the ever-looming threat of Leiyin’s transformation into a hungry ghost make the story gripping and haunting.
This is not only a great ghost story, but an interesting exploration of life in pre-Communist China for a young woman raised to enjoy the thoughts and independence of “Western” life but still yoked by the traditional role and expectations for Chinese women. It’s also a tale of love and passion and family, all with a supernatural twist that makes it all feel fresh and exciting.
5 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
2012: Fashionista Piranha Book Blog Introduction
2011: Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos
2010: Review: An Angel’s Story by Christopher Knowles
2009: Guest Post: Fool by Christopher Moore