28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
ultimately life affirming,
This review is from: Bone: A Novel (Paperback)
We were a family of three girls. By Chinese standards, that wasn't lucky. In Chinatown, everyone knew our story. Outsiders jerked their chins, looked at us, shook their heads. We heard things. -Fae Myenne Ng, Bone
Thus begins Fae Myenne Ng's excellent novel about three sisters growing up in San Francisco's Chinatown. The story that everyone knows is how the middle sister, Ona, committed suicide by jumping off of the Nam, a local housing project officially named the Nam Ping Yuen. The novel tells of the struggle of the narrator, the eldest sister Leila, and her mother, stepfather and sister to deal with this death and the guilt they all feel. Mah, the mother, feels that it's a result of bad luck brought on by the affair she had with her boss. Leon, the father, thinks the tragedy struck because he violated his vow to ship his father's bones back to China. The sisters are sure that they could have stopped it if they'd had just one more conversation with her. But these explanations, of course, prove unsatisfactory and the story unfolds almost like a mystery as Leila's memory flashes back to reconstruct this family's life and the chain of events that must somehow have lead Ona to that rooftop.
But this novel is more than just a Chinese version of Ordinary People. It often seems that American Culture has only two versions of the Chinese that it trots out over and over. In crime melodramas they are always either the evil Chinese warlord or the chopsocky sidekick. In everything else, Chinese Americans are two dimensional drones--hard working, barely human, super successful, over achievers--who practically define the American Dream. Neither of these images has been undermined by the Clinton administration's scandal's which feature Chinese generals and spies on the one hand and, on the other hand, seemingly simple gardeners, resterauntuers and nuns with millions to contribute to politics.
Ng asks us to consider what kind of pressures and recriminations a Chinese American family would face if they failed to achieve the American Dream. Suppose the laundry business goes bust and the savings are wiped out. Suppose after a lifetime of hard work, they're still stuck in the same apartment in the same neighborhood they started out in. What's life like when the dreams don't all come true? And how do the children in this family escape without feeling like traitors and without turning their backs on their heritage?
These are the questions that Ng seeks to answer. In so doing, she affords us a glimpse at a community that is truly foreign to us. Foreign not merely because of ethnicity, but because of the too facile stereotypes that we've been saddled with by an indolent media and by a political class where both sides have a vested interest in perpetuating the myths.
Like all fiction of this sort, the blame and the wallowing in sorrow gets to be a little tedious, but just when she's in danger of losing us, the novel ends on a wonderful life affirming note. I liked it very much.