|MAIN : REVIEWS : THE HUNDRED SECRET SENSES|
|?||2004-01-01||The Hundred Secret Senses||Amy Tan|
The Hundred Secret Senses follows Chinese-American Olivia on a discovery of herself, reluctantly led by her half-sister Kwan. The story jumps back and forth between the present, the last ten years, and the mid eighteen hundreds. As a child, Olivia and her mother learn from her dying father that she has a half sister, and he makes Olivia's mother promise to bring her to America from China. After his death, Olivia's mother fulfills the promise, and Kwan enters into Olivia's life.
Kwan is much older, almost 18 to Olivia's perhaps 6. They share a bedroom, and Olivia's mother is happy to let Kwan take care of Olivia while she spends her time with whoever her boyfriend-of-the-moment happens to be. Kwan speaks English poorly, but speaks a lot. She also teaches Chinese to Olivia. But Olivia at best only tolerates Kwan in her life, and often finds her annoying.
As Olivia grows up, Kwan tells stories about ghosts. Olivia tells her mother and current step father, and Kwan ends up in a psychiatric ward for a while. Olivia is more discreet after this.
The stories Kwan tells center around a young girl in Changmien name Nunumu, whose life changes when missionaries and a woman named Miss Banner come to her village. It becomes clear the Kwan believes she is the reincarnation of Nunumu.
As the story progresses, we also find out about Olivia's eventual marriage to Simon, who is also a Chinese-American. His former girlfriend has recently passed away when Olivia meets him, and she haunts their relationship for the next fifteen years. They live and work together as photographer and writer until the weight of their issues pulls them apart.
After starting divorce proceedings, they get another job for a travel magazine about travelling to China. Kwan had been bothering Olivia to make a trip to Changmien with her, and wanted to go with Simon. However, Simon and Olivia want to reject the offer. Kwan eventually convinces them to go on a friend basis.
The remainder of the book chronicles their adventures in Changmien, as the three are drawn deeper and deeper into the ghost stories told by Kwan, and Olivia has to come to terms with her half-sister's seeming craziness and the distance between her and her husband.
I enjoyed this book, which I bought for 25 cents from the public library book sale this past summer. I found it to be culturally rich. I found Kwan very annoying through much of the book, though I would probably understand much more of her annoyance if I re-read the book. I thought the descriptions of the relationship difficulties between Olivia and Simon were extremely well done. I liked the descriptions of China, and enjoyed learning a little about the culture. (e.g., Tai means Great, Ping means Peace, so the city of Taiping means "Great Peace", and so forth.)
I had a little trouble with the tenses of the book. I think she might have kept it consistent, but I wouldn't be sure without re-reading it. For the very near present, she uses first person present. Recent past is first person past, and far past is third person past.