Sunday, August 12, 2012

Inheritance by Lan Samantha Chang

Lan Samantha Chang holds the position of Director of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City. She has published three books: Hunger, a collection of short stories, All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost, her latest novel, published in 2010, and her second book and first novel, Inheritance. I won an advance reading copy of All is Forgotten at a conference. I had never heard of Chang, but the novel involved an English Professor and some poetry students, so I read it and reviewed it July of 2010. Somehow, her other two books I ordered became lost in a pile. While straightening it out a couple of weeks ago, I came across them. Since I needed a nice solid paperback for a flight to Philly, I began Inheritance on the airplane. I am glad I did, because this sweeping novel of four generations of Chinese women was interesting, exciting, with lots of psychological insights into Asian customs – particularly regarding courtship and marriage.

As I have done with several books lately, I made a family tree to keep all the relationships straight. Chanyi marries Wang Daming and produces two daughters, Junan and Yinan. These two sisters are extremely close, but are torn apart when they both fall in love with the same man, Li Ang, who marries Junan. Yinan is rather plain, but when Junan is separated from her husband by war, she remains home to protect her children, and she sends Yinan to “keep house” for Li Ang. An affair destroys the sisterly bonds.

Li Ang has a brother, Bing Ang, and these two find themselves on opposite sides following World War II. Li becomes a general in the Nationalist Chinese Army, and Bing becomes a colonel in the Communist Chinese Army.

The novel is narrated by Xaio Hong, Junan and Li Ang’s daughter. Xaio’s sister, Hwa, marries Pu Li and Xaio has a baby with Hu Ran, son of her mother’s servant. This shames Junan. The families flee Mainland China in 1949. Hu Ran stays behind along with Li Ang, Yinan, and Bing Li. Xaio and Hwa move to America, but live on different coasts -- Hwa in San Francisco and Xaio in New York. Xaio marries Tom Marquez, and she has two daughters.

This really interesting story of four generations of women shows how times and cultural influences warp and waft relationships – sometimes to the breaking point. Chang’s writing is smooth and calm as the emotions of these women in the story.

Hong frequently recalls advice she received from her mother. For example, Chang writes:

“My mother once warned me not to be too proud of how much I could see. I believe it wasn’t pride but righteous curiosity that made me strive to notice things. Curiosity mingled with a need to uncover what flowed beneath our household calm, a hidden source of pain that wasn’t mentioned. I had seen it in my grandfather, his hair a shock of white, his gaze sliding away as if the sunlight hurt his eyes. I had seen it in my solitary aunt. Now, in the aftermath of Yao’s birth, I could see it in my mother. It wasn’t a ghost. My mother worked to keep it hidden, yet it didn’t disappear. Nothing could vanquish it: not Hwa’s devotion nor my good grades in school; not even my mother’s growing stash of jewelry and gold” (182).

Chang's Inheritance will appear high on my list of the best of 2012. 5 stars

--Chiron, 8/10/12

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