Book Doctor; ‘The Bonesetter’s Daughter’ by Amy Tan

“If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”Michael Crichton

Discovering where we come from, our personal and cultural history, is a fascinating endeavour. I believe that the need to explain, and perhaps validate, our existence is a universally pleasurable experience, and while not all discoveries are pleasant, everything is illuminating. It is the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this bank holiday weekend, I am no Royalist (while I appreciate the revenue this archaic system generates from tourism, I resent the waste of my taxes), it does make me a little proud to be British and celebrating something with my fellow country(wo)men. There is so much that makes me embarrassed to be British, attitudes etc.., that it should be celebrated when something can bring everyone together in a positive manner.

I came across The Bonesetter’s Daughter via my desire to avoid reading another of Amy Tan’s novels, The Joy Luck Club; of which I attempted to watch the film adaptation last year (boring surmises my feelings on that experience). With The Joy Luck Club film dampening my desire to read that book I opted to see what Amy Tan was like through another of her novels:

Ruth Young and her widowed mother, LuLing, have always had a tumultuous relationship. Now, before she succumbs to forgetfulness, LuLing gives Ruth some of her writings, which reveal a side of LuLing that Ruth has never known. . . .

In a remote mountain village where ghosts and tradition rule, LuLing grows up in the care of her mute Precious Auntie as the family endures a curse laid upon a relative known as the bonesetter. When headstrong LuLing rejects the marriage proposal of the coffinmaker, a shocking series of events are set in motion–all of which lead back to Ruth and LuLing in modern San Francisco. The truth that Ruth learns from her mother’s past will forever change her perception of family, love, and forgiveness.Synopsis from GoodReads

Stylistically The Bonesetter’s Daughter is written in one of my favourite forms; it begins in the present with Ruth navigating us through her life, before then venturing into LuLing’s Chinese past and eventually concluding/resolving comfortably back in the present. As I began The Bonesetter’s Daughter it was the prospect of Ruth translating LuLing’s history that motivated my reading however, it was Ruth herself not the mystery which kept me invested. Tan has created a wonderful character in Ruth, who accepts less than she deserves. Ruth, in decoding her relationship with Art, rather than expecting more from him convinces herself she should live with less; Art made it clear what he wanted from their relationship, so she should not expect him to offer more. Ruth panics, worries and feels a sense of guilt which is easily accessible as a reader. Though in parts her sorrows can be overwhelming, and her bad experiences in life too vast; she never has any visible faults and is constantly hard done by but never lets herself feel as such. Ruth is determined to assume she deserves the treatment she receives as she is her own worst enemy.

The beauty of Tan’s writing is in the connection you feel with Ruth, her love for her difficult mother, her inability to open up and her selfless/powerless ability to let people have their way, failing to demand her own. Tan amazed me with the intricacy and beauty of LuLing’s story; we are presented with a difficult, consuming and over protective mother in part one of The Bonesetter’s Daughter, a character not easily sympathised with and a burden to the permissive Ruth. Tan allows us to understand LuLing’s strange nature with the memoirs LuLing documented when her memory began to falter; while I found this journey fascinating, it did not quite explain LuLing’s inability with her own daughter, a relationship which so closely mimicked her and her mothers. LuLing’s past made her a rather inconsiderate character and I did not feel her actions excused her treatment of Ruth. However, I do not think it was Tan’s intention to have characters clean cut or characters in need of redeeming.

The Bonesetter’s Daughter is a wonderful story of Chinese culture, Chinese-American families and the difficulty of being of both worlds. This is not only a story about families and hardship, is spans over a fascinating part of China’s history and I have left this novel with a sense of happiness and a need to discover more.

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