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Enjoyable tale of scandal, ambition

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This Chinese-Canadian historical novel is unusual from the outset: it begins with the death of its young protagonist, Song Leiyin.

Or rather, the story gets going the moment Leiyin's coffin is sealed and she awakens, floats to the ceiling of the temple and perches on the rafters to watch the proceedings, accompanied by three floating sparks -- her souls.

Leiyin and her souls should be long gone, but instead they are trapped between worlds: before they can enter the afterlife, they must atone for Leiyin's wrongs on earth and protect her daughter, Weilan, from danger.

Taiwan-born Vancouverite Janie Chang's first novel, Three Souls is an entertaining, pacey tale of scandal and ambition that never quite wows but offers enough surprises and nuance to keep things interesting.

Although Chang's voice is brightly original, Three Souls may remind some readers of Amy Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses with its references to Chinese superstition.

The variances in Chinese religious and cultural traditions are complex, and Chang explains in the novel's afterword that many of its folk religions "stem from ancestor worship, in which the notion of multiple souls is common."

In Souls, Chang settles on three: Leiyin has a yin soul, a kind of personification of Leiyin's own impetuosity and youthfulness; her yang soul is a stern, fatherly figure; and her hun soul is a dreamlike presence edged in light. Each of the souls has its own distinct identity, and the interplay among them makes for some of Souls' best moments.

Set in the cities of Changchow and Pinghu in China's pivotal 1920s and 1930s, the majority of the novel covers ground Leiyin has already walked. She and her souls review her life on earth, as a schoolgirl and then a wife and mother, in real time.

Occasionally, they stop the "picture" to discuss the ramifications of Leiyin's decisions, Leiyin reliving her heartaches and pleasures, while each of the souls offers its own take on events.

Leiyin, the novel's narrator, is no saint -- redolent with naivet© and a strong sense of entitlement, she makes herself a tough character to stick with for much of the story. But Chang's intricate weave of characters and plot devices ensure the reader's investment isn't wasted.

The souls are always on hand to offer their two cents, by turns sympathetic and acid. And Chang never wastes a scene -- foundations laid early in the novel grow in importance as the pages turn.

Souls' plot is dosed with Chinese history, specifically the country's movement toward communism under Mao Zedong, and the novel's events carry that sense of inevitability that is essential in building tension in any historical novel.

For the most part, Chang's prose feels more functional than lyrical, but every now and then a passage rises above the rest in its simplicity and restraint:

"I return to the roof beams of the temple. Three red sparks join me there, hovering silently before my eyes. Below, the temple doors stand partially open, holding back the muted light of dawn."

Three Souls will prove a diverting read -- especially for those who like their Chinese pop culture flavoured with plenty of Western ideals.

 

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer and editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 31, 2013 A1

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