The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan

The Hundred Secret Senses. I’m not sure that putting ‘the’ in front of ‘hundred’ is grammatically correct, but Amy Tan is one of my favorite authors for two reasons, so I’ll accept it.

The first reason is that she and I have the same birthday. Therefore we are horoscope twins. The second reason is that she is Chinese-American and I have always felt a little jealous of people born Asian.

Actually, if you inspect my DNA, you will find the faint trace of Sami; or Saami, the indigenous people of Sapmi from way up in Norway, Finland and Sweden. According to genealogical studies: “the most common paternal lineage among the Sami indicates an Asian origin.”

I attribute this vague association with my fascination of the Far East.

‘Tis in the blood.

That and it is just plain old interesting. Cultures that are so different from ‘white’ culture just thrill me all to pieces.

Amy Tan wrote The Joy Luck Club in effort to explore her Chinese American experience. Since then she has come out with a number of similar novels; The Kitchen God’s Wife is based on her mother’s life. She draws on old family stories, ancient Chinese legend, and a deep sense of the woman’s perspective offered to us in her unique books.

I like all her books, but The Hundred Secret Senses is one that I’ve read over and over. The novel tells the story of two sisters, and their complicated relationship. Complicated from the point of view of Olivia, the main character: she has spent her life being embarrassed by her half-sister Kwan’s quirks.  In contrast, Kwan has spent her life loving the heck out of Olivia and keeping close to her despite Olivia’s exasperation and indifference.

Kwan has Yin eyes, which means she sees ghosts, and the night she tells her little sister this, Olivia freaks and Kwan gets sent to a mental hospital. Despite this, Kwan goes on, seeing ghosts and talking to them. Through this Olivia learns the story of Miss Banner and the missionaries that lived in China in 1864. The book reads like that – going back and forth from present day to Miss Banner’s tragic tale. The book unfolds to reveal the rich secession of past lives, the secret of the two girl’s father, Olivia’s own ghosts, and finally, the startling truth about Kwan herself.

The only thing I found a trifle annoying about this book is Olivia’s short-sighted view of her own situation. She has this psychotic fixation with her husband’s old girlfriend, Elsa, who died tragically in a skiing accident. When she first starts dating him she takes him to see Kwan, who sees Elsa and tells him that the girl wants him to move on. So he does and he and Olivia end up married. But of course Olivia feels guilty that she somehow duped him into marrying her and she blows the whole Elsa thing out of whack and spends half her marriage being jealous of a ghost.

Of course. It just shows Tan’s brilliance. Olivia is supposed to be annoying and short sighted and get on your nerves slightly. See? I told you the woman is an amazing writer.

By the by- it’s my interest in the supernatural ( I mean, let’s face it shall we? I’m Spooky Hollan) that makes this my favorite of Tan’s, but I also like it because it touches on an interesting time in Chinese history – the Taiping Rebellion. The leader of the rebellion, Hung Xiuquan, the son of a farmer and heavily influenced by Protestant missionaries, came to the conclusion that he was the younger son of Jesus Christ sent to organize the Heavenly Kingdom on earth. He managed to convince the deeply military peasants to follow him and together they created the rebellion – the Taiping tien-quo – Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace – and in fourteen short years, no less than thirty million people were killed.

The society they were attempting to create had Communist overtones, and the China that would emerge from it laid the groundwork for the modernizers that would come.

Ok. History lesson over.

Anyway, Amy Tan is fantastic. Not only is she considered the authority on whats going on with being Chinese-American, her writing is beautiful and poignant. I’m suggesting this one on the grounds that I like it the best, but really, you can pick up any of her books and find them all equally as good. Her memoirs are fascinating, too.


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