Book Review: The Bonesetter’s Daughter

I finished reading The Bonesetter’s Daughter this morning. I have only read Amy Tan once before. Her book The Kitchen God’s Wife had truly impressed me but somehow I never got around to picking up another book by her until last week.

The Bonesetter’s Daughter is a story spread over three generations of Chinese women; it covers China in the world war and communism era to the present day America. The book begins with a brief flashback of a little girl, LuLing, and her mute nursemaid in a small village in Peking. It then moves to the present day, and LuLing is now an eighty-something old Chinese lady settled in San Francisco. She has a grown up daughter, Ruth. Ruth is an independent, intelligent girl currently in a long term relationship. The book then dwells into the life Ruth shares with her boyfriend and his two girls and her struggle to balance work, relationship, and her mother. In between some childhood flashbacks of Ruth’s growing up years in America and the present, we get to know that Ruth has always had a thorny relationship with her mother, who speaks little English, is extremely critical of Ruth, and surrounds herself with the beliefs of ghosts and spirits. Ruth’s complex feelings towards her mother undergo a swift transformation when she finds out that LuLing is suffering from dementia. She then remembers the wad of papers that LuLing had filled with Chinese script and has goaded Ruth to read. With the help of her boyfriend, she gets those pages translated and that is when the second chapter of the book begins.

The second chapter is LuLing’s early life and is written in first person. It describes in beautiful details the life in olden China, the archaeology, the ink making and calligraphy, the Peking man, the Chinese medicine and use of human bones in it, the world war, the communism, the Nanking massacre, and more. However, none of this is told as a historical fact but they are proficiently woven into the life of LuLing. By the end of this chapter we and Ruth learn about LuLing’s struggle to get to America, the heavenly land where no ghosts existed.

The last chapter is the most poignant as it merges the previous two as Ruth uses her newly acquired knowledge of her mother’s past to understand her own childhood conflicts.

I loved how the author traverses geography and time to tell the tale of generational secrets and ails. I specifically enjoyed the characters in the book, and not just the two main ones that I mentioned but all others, for they are all beautifully etched. The bond between LuLing and her sister Gao Ling that strengthens over the years and tragedies is described brilliantly. The rocky romantic relationship of Ruth is secondary to most part of the book, but you can see that the author took care to grown the character of Art, her boyfriend, as the story moved on. And most of all, I admired the author’s craft in using the historical events so subtly and yet so meaningfully in the story.

I read somewhere that Amy Tan had written this novel and given it to the publishers but she took it back after her mother’s death and then rewrote the whole book. The fact that her mother also suffered from Alzheimer’s makes me think that this book is at the very least semi-autobiographical.

I had once described Amy Tan as the Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni of China, but I think I was way off the mark. Although, I still enjoy reading Divakaruni’s books, Tan is definitely a better crafter.

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