The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan

Having randomly picked up and enjoyed Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter from my library in Spain back in 2014, I was keen to read more from her. Especially her debut novel, which many said was one of her finest work. It took me until mid-2016 before I could get a copy of The Joy Luck Club, but boy was it worth the wait.

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The book, written the year I was born, is a thing of beauty. There are 4 sections divided between 8 characters who each narrate one chapter, which themselves are short-story-like vignettes giving us a brief but absorbing glimpse into their worlds and lives. Lives that are connected by more than just history and place.

This is the story of 4 women from China in the 1930s and 1940s who eventually immigrate to America for the hope of better lives for their children and for themselves, the chance for a new, fresh start in the land where you didn’t have to settle for what you were or the situation life or family had put you in. Joy Luck Club, a weekly meeting of mah-jongg, food and friendship, started by one of the women back in China as a distraction from the hardships outside, follows them to American shores, where perhaps their children mistake it as their mothers’ inabilities to let go of tradition. The book focuses on these 4 women and their fractured, fragile relationships with their American-born daughters.

With the structure of the novel, we don’t really see a lot of interaction between the characters. At the most it’s between the individual mother and daughter pairs; there isn’t one moment when all the characters in question are together. But that’s not the point of the narrative. It’s about daughters who are unaware about many of the things in their own mothers’ pasts; the tragedy, loss and heartbreak that have made them who they are, the mothers that they’ve always known, or think they know. It’s about mothers who feel that their daughters are too westernized to ever understand their past and hence never really share it, which further increases the segregation each generation feels. Even as the daughters struggle against the helpless obedience and quiet submission that is required in traditional Chinese women, though their mothers have tried to inculcate in them the opposite, the “American way”, the mothers are secretly worried and scared that their cultural legacy will be lost among their future generations, already so far removed from them.

In the flashback chapters narrated by each of the four mothers, Tan takes us back to a history I knew very little about, a world that the writer sketches gorgeously with delicate description, well-rounded characters and believable dialogue. The going back and forth between the chapters is a bit disorienting in terms of timelines, as is keeping straight all the relationships and connections in each story, but what matters are the characters and their stories. What I took away from this book was how the past shapes not just us but everyone around us. Why we can never really escape from it. How it is impossible for children to remain unaffected by the experiences and stories of their parents even though they might be unaware about them.

The novel starts with the death of An-mei, one of the mothers, and the revelation of a secret that shows her daughter, June, just how little she knew her mother. It puts into motion June’s journey of seeing her mother and the other “aunties” in a different light, and of reconciling with a world and culture she had tried so hard to be separate from. Ultimately she realises that just as the mothers had to make the big transition from China to America, so too must the daughters make the journey in reverse if they are to ever reconcile fully with their American-Chinese heritage.

The Joy Luck Club is a wonderfully sensitively written book about the realities of Asian-American immigrants, and about how our struggles, fears and hopes are ultimately the same, no matter where we come from, what language we speak, who we are.

“Because sometimes that is the only way to remember what is in your bones. You must peel off your skin, and that of your mother, and her mother. Until there is nothing. No scar, no skin, no flesh.” (An-mei, The Joy Luck Club)

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