Secrets, misery in a Chinese woman's tale

July 03, 2005|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun


Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

By Lisa See. Random House, 272 pages.

From its understated opening passage titled "Sitting Quietly," through to its extraordinary finish, Lisa See's latest novel captivates.

Phrases like "breathtaking" are used so often to describe what is usually dreary prose, deaf to nuance, that one comes to ignore such modifiers as mere hyperbole crafted by publicists. Not so with See's novel, which is, by any description, breathtaking in its most literal sense: For much of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, you hold your breath, feeling as if the wind has been knocked out of you, or as if you are drowning.

In 1832, in China's Hunan Province, Lily is born a "so-so girl to a so-so family in a so-so village." Hope has no place in her lexicon. Neither poor nor rich she has one irrevocable flaw: she is female.

At seven, her feet are bound and soon she is, along with the other older girls and women, relegated to the upper story of the house where women are kept like pretty crippled birds in rooms with single windows and no access to the outer world. Caged and cowed by the men who orchestrate their lives, they have no recourse to anything resembling a fully actualized life.

Into this suffocating and pain-wracked world, in which life careens between physical drudgeries and emotional cataclysm, there appears Snow Flower, Lily's laotong or "old same," a girl of vaguely similar breeding and exact age who shares with her the nu shu.

Nu shu is a 1,000-year-old language specific to the Hunan Province of encoded ideograms devised by women for women. It is, See explains in a brief early note, "the only written language in the world to have been created by women exclusively for their own use."

This language, messages written in nu shu to Lily along the folds of a secret fan, and Lily's deep, insatiable and unrequited desire to be loved -- by her mother, her natal family, her husband's family, her children and Snow Flower -- form the evolving plot of See's remarkable and almost unbearably sad tale.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is told by Lily from the vantage point of her old age. At 80, "I have nothing left to lose and few to offend." She tells her story in anticipation of the afterlife, as an explanation of her actions to her ancestors, her husband and most importantly, Snow Flower, all of whom she expects to meet there, but only one of whom she longs for.

Her story reeks of misery. From the hideous cruelty of her foot-binding at seven (Lily's mother tells her over and over, "Only through pain will you have beauty. Only through suffering will you have peace.") to her conflicted old age, See reveals Lily as a 19th-century rural Chinese woman whose life is rigidly defined and programmed by her gender: foot binding, arranged marriage, virtual imprisonment by both her family of origin and her husband's family. The inferior status that women held is made all the more hellish by the adherence to Confucius and to a range of ancient superstitions.

The mesmerizing relationship between Lily and Snow Flower comes to supersede everything in Lily's life -- it sustains her through every harrowing moment. As she re-reads messages on the fan, Lily recalls "We were to be like long vines with entwined roots, like trees that stand a thousand years, like a pair of mandarin ducks mated for life."

But alas, nu shu, the very language of succor that has led Lily to the most important and lasting relationship of her life, the only relationship in which she is an equal and respected for herself despite her gender, ultimately betrays both her and Snow Flower as misunderstandings become explosive, mistrust takes hold and their connection is sundered.

This haunting, beautiful and ineffably sad tale of longing so intense as to be taken beyond the grave, is written in See's characteristically strong prose. She has a keen ear for Lily's yearning, and manages to depict an era and place vastly different from our own Westernized world with grace, acumen and not a little humility.

In her capable hands, Lily evolves as a character with whom the reader (of either gender) can feel a deep affinity, for Lily's quest is irrespective of era or geography or even isolation. See makes her audience feel what Lily feels, to identify with her desperate desire to be touched at that place we call "soul," to exorcise the alienation she feels through one passionate connection with another person.

Like Lydia Kwa's equally compelling, This Place Called Absence, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan journeys into the dark duality of women's lives in an earlier time, illustrating what it was to live an exterior life from dawn till dusk while maintaining a deep and resonant interior life that was secret to all, save one.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is redolent of history, memory and the brutal nature of the unrequited. It is an extraordinary novel, simply breathtaking.

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author of several works of fiction and non-fiction, and has edited numerous collections of short stories and essays, including the award-winning Coming Out of Cancer.

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