Monday, June 26, 2006

BBC -- Review of Bone



Let me start by saying that I simply could not get into this book. In theory, Bone is exactly the type of novel I enjoy reading as it's a story about the necessity of story for our very survival, the need for story to reveal the truth behind one's circumstances, and how story helps us understand our identity, as individuals and as members of families, cultures, and communities. The story of the Leong family -- its tragedies, its joys, and most imporantly, its secrets -- is an intimate portrayal of life in San Francisco's Chinatown as told by first-person narrator Leila. And it is a story that the tour books and history books don't tell.

The narrator's urgency in understanding her heritage, both in the past and in the present, is the heart of this story; the narrator's inability to understand who she is as a Chinese-American woman, a woman torn between her traditional Chinese heritage and the modern "American" world she lives in, drives the story forward, Chinatown representing the two worlds coming together. And it is primarily the secrets of the family -- the unexplainable suicide of middle daughter, Ona; the story behind the disappearance of the narrator's biological father; the true lives of the three daughters in contrast with the images they present to their parents; the failure to return Grandfather Leung's bones to China -- that create the tension in the story. The characters' refusal to confront these issues head on only perpetuates this tension; it seems crucial for Leila to face this tension through her storytelling. For her entire life, Leila has only received fragments of her life's story, and it seems vital for her to piece her story together, bit by bit, through whatever means she can. Only through story can Leila face who she is and perhaps create a stronger, more authentic sense of self.

Okay, I get all of that in theory. And I'm not sure why I didn't connect with this novel. I admired the relationships in the story, felt the pain as the family struggled with dealing with tragedy. The prose was admirable, poetic, smooth, real...especially for a first novel. As narrator, Leila tells her story with brutal honesty; she doesn't sugarcoat herself or her experiences. But the story felt choppy to me; I got lost in when things were taking place (is Leila married yet? is Ona dead yet?) and kept having to flip back to previous pages to try and piece it all together. And at the same time, things felt rushed via too much exposition as opposed to carefully drawn-out scenes; so much took place in under 200 pages, I wondered why the author didn't write 400 pages instead. Sure, it's a good book, no denying that, but if someone wants to read a story about Chinese-American experiences, I'm going to suggest The Woman Warrior. And if someone wants a story about the damaging impact of secrets on a family's survival, I'm handing them Beloved.

(Though perhaps that's an unfair expectation for any author -- I mean, Maxine Hong Kingston and especially Toni Morrison are about as good as it gets!)

8 Comments:

Blogger greeneyes said...

Yep, I understand everything you're saying, and I agree. The time problems really annoyed me, and it wasn't until I was almost finished with the book that I saw what I thought she was trying to do.

I enjoyed this book, mostly because for a first novel, it's so well written. Lately it seems like a lot of first novels are either too slick (let wit cover what you don't know) or trying too hard (they're all trying to write Everything Is Illuminated). Ng misses that latter category by just a hair, but I think that's because, as you pointed out, the book is too short. I wonder if she'd written a longer book, some of the tricky stuff might've gone away, and we would have had a fuller picture.

Thanks to you and Vanessa for starting this up...it's fun!

7:26 AM  
Blogger TessaJ said...

Thanks for participating this month! I'm hoping more and more people will want to.

I think I understand what she was trying to do, but it just didn't come together for me (and the novel closed in a different place in the past than it began, and that was odd. Gave it less of a "frame" for its form). But I have a feeling Ng will come out with something even better for her second novel.

I hear you, though. First novels can be pretty slick, over-the-top, trying too hard (probably because they come right out of MFA workshops where everything is overworked).

10:02 AM  
Blogger A Novelist said...

Thanks for the review. I'm always on the lookout for new novels to read. :)

7:46 AM  
Blogger TessaJ said...

I hope you join us for the next read! I think this one would be a good plane book -- short, relatively easy, and better written than most stuff out there!

10:00 AM  
Blogger A Novelist said...

Sure, that sounds fun. Keep me posted. :)

9:30 AM  
Blogger TessaJ said...

I'll post the list for the next month's book in a couple of days!

10:19 AM  
Anonymous Vanessa said...

Theresa, I'm so sorry for not posting my review on time! But it is up now, only two weeks late. I must say that I fully agree with your review of Bone. Here's hoping our next book will be more enjoyable.

9:08 PM  
Blogger TessaJ said...

Oh, no worries! I'll head over and check out your comments!

10:35 AM  

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