Carolyn Unfolds the
Mysteries of Culture, Language and Writing Subtly Like the Whisper
of a Fan
A Carolyn Howard-Johnson Review for Riters ™
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
By Lisa See
Published by Random House
Rating 5 of 5
How does a reviewer appraise a book that is at once history, a
saga, a literary novel, a book of poetry and a feminist force? What
standards might she apply to the structure, the characterization,
the dialogue, the premise? In this case maybe she would open it
like fan, let it whisper its secrets one spoke at a time. Readers
would see the value there and writers, too, would learn something
of their craft.
This case, of course, is this review of Snow Flower and the
Secret Fan by Lisa See. It is the story of the mysterious and
beautiful language of Nu Shu. I capitalize the name of
this language even though See chose not to, probably because the
Chinese women who wrote and spoke the language didn't. Although
it was a language of position and identity, just as English or any
other language is, it was also secret. The women who practiced it—it
was more of a practice than simply a language that "merely"
reflects and inspires a culture— probably wouldn't have thought
to make their nu shu more than they thought their humble tongue
might warrant, though they undoubtedly recognized its importance
in their life.
The mystery of Nu Shu is brought alive by a woman of eighty
who tells her own story and that of Moon Flower, her laotong—other
self or "other same" as it is often translated. See doesn't
call the first few chapters of this telling a prologue, but it is
or could be, if she'd chosen to call it that. (Lesson number one
for writers: We needn't necessarily abide protocol if there is a
very good reason not to and we certainly needn't use the same old
labels others have used when we choose to follow tradition.) This
prologue of sorts is called "Sitting Quietly." It sets
the reader up for the history and life of this ancient. After only
three pages we meet Lily, a "so-so girl" not yet of foot-binding
age, whom we quickly learn is the same woman who had just spoken
to us of her long life. What a wonderful technique to suggest the
credibility and wisdom of a retold story while keeping the reader
enthralled with a first person adventure told in the moment.
This is also the story of laotong, a unique kind of love
between girls that continues on through their married life and is
peculiar (at least this particular incarnation) to ancient Chinese
culture. It is a love-partnership that is both arranged and chosen,
contracted as firmly as a marriage pact (in fact more firmly in
the eyes of the participating women). The formalized love-friendship
is bound to the language women of this singular ethnic group developed
and practiced as a means of emotional—and sometimes physical—
See's meticulous research and her channeling of this woman becomes
a saga that lets the reader into the souls and times of pre-Mao
China. To do this, See uses narrative heavily. She doesn't ignore
that modern readers need their dialogue to feel part of the story
and it might be missed if the dialogue she uses was not done so
well. It rings with authenticity because she doesn't attempt to
imitate an accent. She uses simple words and phrasing to achieve
a Chinese lilt instead.
Snow Flower is heavy on telling because the story necessitates
it; it works because it is told in first person so the reader has
a sense that the narrative is spoken. It also works because the
setting and culture are so fascinating that we are most happy to
sit still in large enough chunks to absorb all this mystery, culture,
repression, joy, sadness, and pain into our pores.
See also lets the reader learn of the intricacies of the culture,
the characters and their relationships slowly, as Lily comes to
understand them. That is an unfolding—one delicate rib of
the fan at a time—that surely required as much planning as
the most detailed mystery.
A national bestseller, this is a gripping novel but, for the writer,
it can also be an illuminating text on the essentials of writing
and even the intricacies of formatting and style. For the latter
see page 14 of the paperback edition where See breaks the "No-Internal-Dialogue-In-Italics-Rule
and the No-Emphasis-In-Italics Rule in one phrase (perhaps the only
time in the entire book) with the poignant cry from the heart of
a child for her mother to See me! See me! See me!
The chant may be a song, from the heart of the author who senses
that if we see her, we might—regardless of the genre we write
in—be better writers.
Reviewed by Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of This is the Place,
Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered, Tracings, and
the How To Do It Frugally Series of book for writers
Each month in this box, Carolyn lists
a writing or promotion tidbit that will help authors and a
tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books
or a sapphire among the newly-published.
Tidbit: Carolyn has a new website where writers will
find "Resources for Writers," by clicking on the
tab at the top of the www.HowToDoItFrugally.com
website. There writers will find lists of book fairs, article
disseminators, websites that distribute media releases free
and even a list of books that can make a difference in any
writing career. It is growing. Check back often.
Tip: Pick up a classic now and then. My vote for
this month is a reread of Main Street by Sinclair Lewis. I
spoke at a writers conference recently and was fortunate enough
to see the authors' original Main Street in Sauk Centre, Minnesota.
I think I'll get more from the book now I've seen the real
place (and after stuffing several years writing and reading
experience under my belt). If you read it, let me know what
you think. In my original reading I thought it good, but nothing
like Steinbeck! My e-mail is HoJoNews@aol.com.
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