Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tan returns at top of her game

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An intriguing landscape painting gives name to, and reappears throughout popular California writer Amy Tan's highly anticipated sixth novel.

In this saga where secrets and deceit challenge self-knowledge and love, the painting moves the plot forward, reveals character and projects and reflects the undulations of choice and fate.

Tan's fans have waited eight long years since her last novel, Saving Fish from Drowning, while she recovered from debilitating Lyme disease. Fortunately, she's back, and near the top of her game.

Her most ardent fans will have already downloaded Tan's 2011 digital release -- longer than a short story, shorter than a novella -- Rules for Virgins, which now, with little modification, forms a chapter in The Valley of Amazement.

Eager readers, then, have already had a whiff of Shanghai's early 20th-century first-class courtesan houses where blossoms and stems merge and couples explore such positions as "Climbing the Mountain," "Double-Winged Bird" and "Seagull Wings on the Edge of a Cliff."

These readers will have indirectly met young Violet, through whose eyes -- sometimes American, sometimes Chinese -- we primarily experience the full story. They will have been introduced to the wise, fatalist Magic Gourd, Violet's attendant, teacher and true, if not real, mother.

As in The Joy Luck Club (1989), The Kitchen God's Wife (1991) and The Bonesetter's Daughter (2001), Tan examines the edges and mesh of American and Chinese culture and mother-daughter relationships, this time through three generations, mostly considered from a Chinese setting.

This is a story where mothers lose and sometimes search for their children. Daughters find other mothers. Light is shone on nature and nurture. And love is tested and changed with experience.

The story has immediacy and intimacy as told by Violet from age 7 to 41. Hers is an engaging perspective, but hardly a reliable one, as she lacks understanding or all of the pertinent facts.

We share her precocious childhood in the courtesan house of her mother, Lulu/Lucia, a pragmatic, Shanghainese-speaking American who straddles east and west. We're there when Violet's haughty self-perception is shaken upon learning her father is Chinese, and when duplicitous actions wrench her from Lulu, reversing young Violet's fortune in the world.

There are the seminal men of her life -- Loyalty Fang, Bosson Edward Ivory III (whose spiritual guide is Walt Whitman) and Perpetual of the Sheng family. And there is a daughter, Flora. There's also the dangerous foray from Shanghai to remote Moon Pond Village, which may well be in the Valley of Amazement.

Tan plays with names. Are they emblematic? Ironic? Prophetic?

Violet's experiences parallel those of Lulu, including insidious events that cleave Flora from her. Tan reminds us throughout that people may change their name, dress, home, even the look of their face, but can never escape themselves.

Structurally jarring to the story are two late chapters that revert 28 years, voiced by Lulu at age 16. It's from this vantage point, however, that we learn what Violet doesn't know and can better assess Lulu's nature and actions. The last chapter rapidly spans 13 years and reintroduces Flora. It has the makings of a worthy sequel.

A character comments on the painting The Valley of Amazement: "The colours are rich, yet subtle."

The novel, too, is flush with intensity, but it's hardly understated. It brims with bold characters living and speaking larger-than-life life-truths. Ultimately, it underscores the sentiment that though we confront life alone, love will sustain us, even redeem us.

Gail Perry is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 9, 2013 A1

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