The Narrow House (1921, Evelyn Scott)

There are eyes everywhere in The Narrow House; Evelyn Scott never misses a chance to draw attention to them. In this study of a family at war with itself, the most minor character is sure to have theirs described, from a baker’s ‘narrow good-natured eyes’ to the ‘inscrutably professional’ ones of a doctor. Major characters, especially women, have their eyes repeatedly described, whether they are ‘dull and confused with resentment’, ‘opaque with misery’, ‘violently hard’, ‘self-righteously excited’, ‘rapacious with humility’, ‘lustful with pity’ or ‘fixed and despairing’. Scott is painstaking, too, in charting the movement of her characters’ eyes as they variously meet and avoid one another’s gaze. A sad, neglected little girl has a terror of eyes, particularly her mother’s, while her lonely aunt wonders whether it would be better to be blind. Eyes, in this novel, are weapons; both looking and not looking at your enemy can serve as modes of attack or defence. A few examples:

He glanced at her, his solemn eyes twinkling with a kind of placid malice.

 

His eyes narrowed against hers as though he were shutting her out.

 

He veiled his disconcerted rather empty blue eyes under defensively lowered lids.

 

His daughter-in-law disturbed him and if he could avoid it he never looked her in the eye.

 

“I hope so, Mrs. Price,” he agreed, coming forward, his lids drooping as if to shut out the painful sight of them all.

 

Winnie’s eyes shone, mercilessly sweet, into the hunted eyes of the elder woman.

 

Winnie’s eyes, like brown bees, crept with their glance into the vague combative eyes before them.

 

His smoky eyes were everywhere and on no one.

 

Alice kept a rigorous gaze full of cruel pity steadily upon her mother’s face.

 

She looked steadily with her dissolving gaze against his unpenetrated eyes.

This ocular warfare takes place surrounded by mirrors and windows: mirrors that provide fragile reassurance for the beautiful and torment for the plain, windows that make faces of houses and train cars, that let in light that exposes and reveals. Light, and its absence, is a further authorial obsession. In a book of just over 200 pages, the word ‘dark’ appears more than 120 times, ‘light’ more than 90, ‘bright’ more than 50, while ‘pale’ appears 40 times. Then there are the colors. White gets the most mentions, but grey, black, blue and red also feature heavily, as do color compounds, such as purplish-blue, amber-white, gray-green, etc. Eyes, leaves, teeth, furniture, clothes are all assigned colors: there doesn’t seem to be any symbolic method or patterning here, simply the creation of a dazzling visual texture that is precise in isolation but cumulatively vague (‘vague’ is one of Scott’s favorite adjectives). The exciting, frightening possibilities and uncertainties of modernity, which set the members of the Farley family at each other’s throats, are both brilliant and diffuse, leaving the characters bewildered in a visual overload. The shifting volatility of the historical moment, its attraction to the new and strange, finds expression―particularly in relation to eyes―in the odd and sometimes contradictory use of adjectives and adverbs. I’ve already quoted ‘placid malice’, ‘mercilessly sweet’, ‘vague combative’ and ‘cruel pity’; there’s also ‘angrily caressing’, ‘dark bright empty’, ‘soft sharpness’, ‘languid and deliberate excitement’, ‘vague hard’, ‘sweet greedy’, ‘fiercely soft’, a humility that is ‘triumphantly cruel’. Heady stuff, at times teetering on the edge of silliness, but never less than interesting.

Scott was prolific and acclaimed in 1920s, but her career nosedived in the following decade, and she ended her life bitter, paranoid and forgotten. There have been attempts to rehabilitate her since then, with a few reprints and critical studies, but she remains obscure. The Narrow House, the first volume of a trilogy, was also her first novel, and is not without its crudities. Some of it reads as if it had been culled from an anthology of Imagist poems; the result is as hit-and-miss as this implies. The striving for a big effect can be strained, as in the hands of a clock being ‘rigid as the limbs of the crucified,’ or the empty rooms in a row of houses being ‘blank as the faces of idiot women waiting for love.’ Scott is sometimes guilty of piling too much in an untidy heap; it isn’t enough for a house at night to be ‘a monstrous phlegmatic beast half drowned’, its ‘inmates’ have to be ‘sightless parasites’ as well. ‘Inmates’ is a metaphorical way of describing the occupants of a house; the metaphor here doesn’t make a good fit with monsters and parasites. I also doubt many animals would be phlegmatic about the prospect of drowning. But there are plenty of goodies, too: wet wheel tracks ‘glistening and sinuous like black rubber snakes’; a character’s voice dying away ‘like the shed petals of a flower’; the smile on her face like ‘the still surface of a pool filled underneath with little frightened fish.’ There’s a particularly fine passage as a narcissistic wife returns to the awful house after a brief sojourn away:

It was foggy. The train passed through a railway yard and Winnie saw rows of empty cars, long and low, that were like monsters with lusterless hides and opaque eyes, submerged in mist. Hundreds of dull eyes stared from the dimly shining windows, the pale eyes of the cars.

  Delicate bridges floated over her head as the train passed beneath them, and the swinging arms of derricks and huge machines, lifted through the mist, were as frail as lace.

  Lights burst against the mist like rotted stars, and there were other lights that opened upon her suddenly, glad and unseeing as the eyes of blind men raised in delight.

  The moon, small with distance, slimed over with fog, was green like money lost a long time. The telegraph wires stretched across the pale landscape tautly, like harpstrings. One after another the flat branched poles seemed to open submissive palms to the passing train.

It’s not flawless. If the eyes of the blind men are raised in delight, you would only be able to see them if you were looking down, which doesn’t accord with the character’s position in a train. But otherwise, it’s great, especially the gracefully alliterative last line.

There isn’t much plot. The elements of a plot are present; they seem to promise a feverish family melodrama to match the feverish intensity of the prose, but it never quite materializes. There are events―a few of them quite dramatic―but Scott shows little interest in weaving them into an artfully told tale, opting instead for a bleary narrative drift from scene to scene, character to character, dipping now and then into some stream-of-consciousness, or a poetic rhapsody on the sky, leaving the crises to peter out. The book is concerned with impressions, suggestions, atmospheres; the narrative propulsion is weak. What moors the novel, keeping it from floating about freely in the realms abstraction, is the author’s masterful depiction of her characters, which are conceived with a psychological acuity that recalls a more traditional novel. Some of them are quite familiar as types―the frustrated young spinster, the pompous moneyed oaf, the weak shambling patriarch―but they are given enough depth and strangeness to avoid cliché. Scott can be a heavy-handed writer, but her touch can also be deft and amusing.

Mr. Price came up to her and gave her a dominating caress. “Well, Winifred, how are you, my dear little girl?”

  She returned his perfunctory kiss, her moist lips cool with distaste.

  “Feeling pretty badly, dear?”

  “No, Father. I’m feeling pretty well.”

  He cleared his throat. He was disappointed.

The Narrow House isn’t a lost masterpiece, but neither is it a mere historical curio. It is certainly a very good first novel―good enough to suggest that Scott’s bibliography might just include the odd masterpiece or near-masterpiece, or else a respectable number of works of more modest excellence. What about The Wave (1929), which contemporary reviewers praised to the skies, and which was reissued in 1986? A big, big book about the Civil War told from multiple perspectives seems an obvious candidate for inspection, perhaps too obvious. At any rate, my interest in this writer has been awakened.

Haunch Paunch and Jowl (1923, Samuel Ornitz)

This is a rather obscure book by a rather obscure author. The few people to whom the name Samuel Ornitz might mean anything are more likely to recognize him as a screenwriter than as a novelist, and his film career was not particularly illustrious (he’s best known for being one of the Hollywood Ten). A few scholars of Jewish-American fiction might have heard of him―perhaps even have read him―but despite being reprinted in the 80s, the book under review here (his debut) can hardly be said to have secured its author’s lasting fame. Yet Haunch Paunch and Jowl* was a big commercial success in its day. Its mention in the Wikipedia entry on Ornitz caught my attention (‘[it] contains an early use of stream-of-consciousness writing in American fiction’); when I saw, at the bottom of the page, that the whole text was available to read online for free, I decided that it was worth at least a brief investigation, and that brief investigation of the first page nudged me into reading the whole thing properly.

The narrator is Meyer Hirsch, a successful New York judge, who looks back at his rise from childhood poverty to wealth and status. It soon becomes clear that the behavior he displays as a boy (devious, selfish, motivated by ruthless ambition) sets the pattern for his adult career, and that the success enjoyed by the middle-aged Meyer has been achieved through dubious means. Apart from a few instances of flash-forwards, the narrative is mostly linear, though episodic and jumpy, with a very vague timeline; no dates are given, though one would suppose that the story opens in the late 19th century. At the start, Meyer is a young boy living in a tiny apartment with his mother, father and uncle. The men spend most of their day slaving at their meagrely-paid jobs, while the mother is scarcely less harried by the demands of simply sustaining an existence. The three Yiddish-speaking adults are émigrés from Russia, driven from their homeland by pogroms; the rich German Jews who are their new employers and exploiters look down on families such as the Hirsches as belonging to an uncivilized peasant culture. He is given the nickname of ziegelle, or little goat, which was bestowed upon him affectionately by his mother, but is resented by Meyer due to the teasing to which he is subjected by his peers. It turns out that the term of endearment was not an arbitrary choice, for Meyer learns to his dismay that when he was born during the family’s passage to America, he was indeed suckled by a goat while his mother lay sick. The young Meyer is taunted by shadows on the wall of his apartment, imagining that they are cavorting goats come to mock him; even the shadows of his mother’s beckoning arms take on this aspect. Meyer complains about his nickname to Berel the harness-maker:

“Then tell me, Berel, be so good, what’s the matter nobody likes a goat and everybody makes fun of them.”
  “First place, nothing bothers a goat and that makes people angry. A goat manages to get along where any other creature would perish. Stubble, twigs, anything is food and nourishment for him. He is a sidestepper, can walk a narrow ledge or fence, if need be. He is for himself; unfeeling, and befriends no one. An unlikable, ugly thing with a most unreasonable smell. And I have noticed that a goat is the only thing ridicule can’t kill.”

Of course, this describes the goatish disposition Meyer will display through the years, though I feel Ornitz could have done more to sustain the goat imagery in the latter parts of the book (indeed, there’s a lot of animal imagery in the early chapters, and it’s a shame that it peters out). Here, goats are contrasted with lambs―specifically with Berel’s peaceable employee Lutz, who lies severely injured after being assaulted by policemen. It is the goats who prosper, while the lambs are trodden underfoot. This, it would appear from Ornitz’s book, is the ordinary state of affairs in a capitalist society, in which success always comes at the expense of others. The young Meyer gets an early taste of the pitiless power-play success requires in his involvement with the local gang, working his way up from the very bottom:

I am in a hurry to join the Ludlow Street Gang. Just yesterday I was admitted to its glorious ranks as the fourteenth leader. I was not Leader the Fourteenth, but of the whole gang fourteenth in prowess and importance. However, I had only thirteen superiors. Being the lowest step in the ladder, I was most frequently trod upon; but it was sweet suffering, the travail of a hero. . . . **

He does not remain long in this position, his first advance coming as a result of a fight over a seating place by an outdoor fire. He makes himself useful with his ingenuity, careful never to expose himself to significant physical danger, but becoming a trusted adviser to the gang’s leader, Boolkie. The young Ludlow Streeters amuse themselves with petty crimes and brawling rivalries, many of them relishing the freedom to make mischief because it is in such exhilarating contrast to the harsh, gloomy routines of the cheder, or religious school, they are forced to attend. As Meyer states, the ‘gang was romance, adventure, had the zest of banditry, the thrill of camp life, and the lure of hero-worship’. There’s a brilliantly entertaining passage in which the boys, released from the cheder for the day, engage in a large street fight with another gang (described in comically militaristic terms: ‘a battalion of boys’, ‘a fusillade of brickbats’, ‘an unopposed charge upon the Guerrillas’ rear’, etc. ), the fight morphing into a more general riot until Meyer starts orchestrating it for his own advantage. Here darker undertones intrude, as property is destroyed (perhaps reminding the shopkeepers of the pogroms they’d fled) and protection money demanded, the young hooligans acting just as a bona fide criminal gang would (naturally, several of the young hooligans indeed go on to become bona fide criminal gangsters). Respectable pillars of the community tut-tut at all this, but when the two Jewish gangs join forces to fight Irish youths, the same pillars of the community urge them on. The same pillars of the community are also sweatshop operators and brothel owners, their conduct, beneath the veneer of respectability, being no less corrupt and inhumane than that of the gangsters. As Meyer’s legal career takes off, he contrives to keep a foot in both camps, maintaining the front of a worthy, pious Jew who regularly attends synagogue (inwardly, he despises religion) while finding that his boyhood criminal connections are of great use to him professionally. He also becomes part of the notorious Tammany Hall system that dominated Democratic politics in New York for years, posing as a champion of the working man while seeking only to benefit himself. His uncle Philip, meanwhile, becomes a convinced capitalist (“It’s a good thing,” he says, “this is a free country and I can exploit whom I like.”), rises from lowly factory worker to wealthy mogul, all the while treating his employees like dirt and manipulating union leaders for his own ends. The satirical mode is an invigorating blend of disgusted Swiftian indignation and exuberant Jonsonian revelry in chicanery and cunning. The condemnation of capitalism is total and unremitting, and yet Ornitz cannot resist having a ball with Meyer’s schemes (and those of his uncle), making them seem almost fun even if the schemer himself is far from a fun character. Ornitz depicts through his narrator’s recollections a society made sick and venal at all levels by capitalism. Business, the law, politics, gangs and religion: all operate according to the same principles, or lack of them. Appearance counts for more than reality in such a society; you may be a total fraud, crook, incompetent and hypocrite, but if you put on a good front, people will take ‘you to be the man you say you are’. A foray into the world of musical theatre is the occasion for some great comedy, but we also see the phoniness of commercial entertainment, the narrowness of its relentless pursuit of profit, the crassness of its racial stereotyping, its association with prostitution and organized crime. It is via Meyer’s activities as performer that Ornitz provides his bleakest picture of the human cost of capitalism:

Later, when tips were running high, Sam introduced us to the fifty-cent houses on Mott and Elizabeth Streets, where was beginning to develop a large Italian colony. Pimps on the street pulled at us, dragged us into doorways and cried their drawing card―“imported girlies, young―very young”; that was the attraction. And we found nothing misleading in their advertisement. The girls were young, very young, ten to fourteen years old, and imported, imported by Italian padrones, importers of livestock only: pleasure girls, boy and girl street musicians, children acrobats, crippled and deformed children for begging; and when such importations were stopped only by the horrors exposed by their own excesses, they became respectable importers of mine and railway peons. The Elizabeth Street joints were crude and dirty places, and Hymie Rubin, rather sensitive and soft-hearted, turned from them in disgust, saying he minded most the little girls’ white, bewildered faces. […] Hymie preferred the Five Points scrubs because they were cheap and did not seem to be human beings.

In contrast to Meyer’s cynicism and single-minded devotion to his own interests, Ornitz also presents a series of ‘good’ characters, who are variously compassionate, idealistic, principled, naïve. Such qualities Meyer regards with scorn, but even among the ‘dream-stupefied’ (a frequently employed term of abuse), there are some for whom he has a certain amount of respect and admiration, even he cannot understand their approaches to life. Most important is his complicated relationship with Esther, a beautiful local girl who becomes a committed socialist. Ornitz has a real gift for characterization, superbly realizing monsters like Meyer and Philip, more sympathetic figures such as his boyhood friends Avrum and Davey (who in adulthood turn, respectively, to political activism and poetry), and little cameos such as the elderly rabbi who rails against prostitution and curses much of his congregation, the brash theatrical agent with idiosyncratic pronunciation (e.g. ‘I takes pleasure in arnouncing the East Side Four, kwartet, buck an’ wing and comedy artists, introducing numberous nowelties, all bein’ under the pursonel direckshun of A. Wolff, Esquire’), and, best of all, a boozy old pianist:

Piano O’Brien’s deft signals holds [sic] us in key, time and place. He is more than an accompanist. He is our guiding genius, attending our every move with telepathic accord. And so he sits the whole night, slightly stooped, at the piano, accompanying the singers, playing a vagrant, restful interlude or joining the fiddler, cornetist and drummer in banging out the dance music of the day. And his eyes seem drowned in the eternal well of whiskey on the music rest. He appears as tireless and detached as an automaton. He is a pale-faced drunkard, as though the very blood in him has turned into high-proof spirits. . . . Drunk unceasingly for many years, yet he is never the drunken man. His repose is deathlike, but gruesome in the midst of life. His eyes are like small clams congealed in alcohol. He has thin lips that compress into a purple straight line. His skin, drawn taut over forehead, cheek bones and jaw bones, seems petrified. His hands, only, seem limber and living, but the hands become as part of the piano. To the world he has no personality or being or self except as the thing of the piano. So he is known as Piano O’Brien.

Some of the characters may seem like familiar types later to be often seen in Hollywood movies (although Hollywood seldom placed them in an explicitly Jewish milieu), but here they seem fresh. It is also true that, on the whole, the men are more vivid than the women, but perhaps this a result of our seeing them through the eyes of a narrator who has little time for women except as sex objects.

As I hope the passages quoted above suggest, Haunch Paunch and Jowl contains some very impressive writing, revelling in the display of its author’s keen powers of description (‘His eyes are like small clams congealed in alcohol’―just wonderful). Ornitz’s portrayal of life in New York’s Jewish immigrant community is marvellously fresh and detailed: the rollicking prose is peppered with tasty bits of dated slang (bushwah, spiffy, yegg, lobbygow, spieler and so on), and there’s also quite a bit of Yiddish, italicized and with translations provided in brackets. One of the book’s strengths is Meyer’s narratorial voice: shrewd, caustic, loquacious, amoral, without shame. Occasionally the expressions of a self-interested, cynical philosophy are a little too on the nose, but they are in keeping with Meyer’s blunt and unnuanced mind. A bigger criticism is that Ornitz is not consistent, for there are some passages that don’t seem as if Meyer could have been written them. For instance, a brief account of the spread of ragtime displays a deeper interest in popular art and a greater resentment towards conservative taste-makers than is characteristic of the narrator. A rhapsody on the theme of the city’s red-light districts seems more moralistic, more concerned with sin and vice than one would expect of Meyer. Ornitz’s use of stream-of-consciousness (which is what attracted me to the book) is interesting and often effective, but it is also sometimes a bit rough-and-ready. See how much work the ellipses are doing in the following passage, for example:

These are the thoughts filtering into my mind like hot ashes. . . . I am getting ready for bed. . . . It is the beginning of another summer. . . . I stand by the window . . . a young moon rides the heavens, trailing the gauziest of nebulae . . . like a bridal veil . . . a bridal veil. . . . Gretel calls me . . . is she apprehensive . . . does she sense that I am seeing a heavenly virgin bedecked in nuptial lace? . . .

The problem is that the succession of thoughts (which are, in themselves, well-written) is too neat and orderly; Meyer may mention ‘the trick of rapid incoherent thoughts flipping through [his] mind,’ but in truth a little more rapidity and incoherence would not have gone amiss at times. Elsewhere, Ornitz achieves this brilliantly:

The wind screeched in my ears . . . you thought you would forget . . . but you will never forget Esther . . . her eyes . . . her hands . . . her quick smile . . . and her voice . . . you will never forget. . . . Everything is rushing on, swiftly. The wind is sweeping the world away from me. . . . I am left alone clinging to the granite block . . . the trees rush past, the houses swoop away, the river rages on its flight from me; below me I feel a rumble; now comes a gaseous snort . . . a freight-train flees after the wind-borne trees, houses, river, and swirling roads. . . . The wine of her lips―one kiss . . . limbs quivering beneath silk . . . a whisper . . . dust off the electric chair . . . charred potatoes but sweet . . . a whisper . . . hands tingling under my hot lips. . . .

It’s strange to think that a book containing passages such as this could have been a bestseller back in 1923, and stranger still that it could have fallen into oblivion. One possible reason for its current neglect could be that there’s something a little odd and tangled about its attitude to immigration, assimilation and the place of Jews in America Jewish. Ornitz is hard on Meyer, who wears a Good Jew mask for his own self-serving ends, but he is scarcely sympathetic to the old traditions Meyer pretends to honor. On the one hand we have a character such as Dr. Lionel Crane (Lazarus Cohen), who pontificates on ‘The Jewish Question’, espouses assimilationist views, downplays anti-Semitism, and is clearly something a quack. On the other hand, when leftist union man Avrum suggests that the pogroms in Russia are to be blamed in part on the behavior of Jewish traders and money-lenders, he is vilified, and Ornitz clearly has some sympathy with his sense of being misunderstood and unfairly attacked, even if it’s not clear that Ornitz endorses Avrum’s views. Berel Lotvin the harness-maker is revealed towards the end to have attained a successful and contented existence as a tire-dealer under the name of Bernard Lowe, having turned from Judaism to Christian Science; he is apparently rewarded for renouncing his Old World Jewish name, religion and profession in favor of modern American ones. He claims that even his diabetes―thought of as a typically Jewish complaint―has been cured following his conversion. His sons, however, have started to attend synagogue, though it may be simply in order to woo two young women in the congregation. So Ornitz’s viewpoint is hard to determine. It is striking how little anti-Semitism features in the novel, the only clear example being the conflict between the Irish and Jewish youth gangs. What we don’t see is anti-Semitism being an obstacle or source of oppression; there is plenty of bigotry between Jews (mainly in the form of German Jews looking down on Russian Jews), but little bigotry towards Jews on the part of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant society. This omission renders Ornitz’s panorama incomplete, racial prejudice being a key component of the dehumanizing capitalist system he excoriates. Despite this flaw, the book is certainly strong enough to warrant a further reprint, and it is to be hoped that a publisher such as the New York Review of Books or The Dalkey Archive seeks to return it to the limelight.

* The odd title refers to a nickname the protagonist endures as his girth expands in step with his rising public profile.
** You can see here how Ornitz destabilizes the temporal viewpoint of his narrator. The first sentence is in the simple present (the tense most frequently employed in the novel’s early parts); the next marks a shift to the simple past (which, later on in the book, comes more the fore). Except that ‘I am in a hurry’ and ‘Just yesterday’ belong to the same moment: Meyer running to meet his fellow gang members having been admitted by them the day before. It is a moment in Meyer’s past, but he narrates it as if it were happening right now. When he talks of being ‘frequently trod upon’, there is another shift in temporal viewpoint, because this can only refer to a series of occurrences happening over period of time after the second day of his gang membership, and so, from the perspective of the ‘present’ of Meyer hurrying to join his confrères, refers to Meyer’s future, even as he really looking back on the past.

Crossings (1968, Chuang Hua)

Warning: This article discusses many details of the book’s ‘plot’. I put plot in inverted commas because I don’t believe the book, fragmentary and non-linear in its narrative, is much concerned with plot, and therefore don’t regard these details as spoilers. Others may differ.

I had never heard of Crossings before coming across a copy in a Seoul bookshop. The name Chuang Hua was likewise wholly unfamiliar. This is her only published work. It’s heavily autobiographical, drawing on her family history and childhood memories, shifting freely between the present and various points in the past. The central character, Fourth Jane (so-called because she is the fourth of seven children), is a young Chinese-American woman, clearly based on the author. Other family members include her father, Dyadya (a former doctor who has turned successfully to business in the States); her mother, Ngmah; and a younger brother, Fifth James, who has been serving in the US army in Germany. Other significant characters are Amah, the family’s nanny; James’s unnamed wife; and Jane’s unnamed Parisian lover. Such plot as exists is difficult to summarise, so I’ll just attempt to give a brief description of its most important points.

While away from his family, Fifth James marries a white woman without seeking permission from his parents. His father is initially opposed, and the young couple duly shunned, but later, following the birth of a grandchild, he relents and begins to visit them. This causes friction between Jane’s parents. She herself is unsettled by her father’s inconsistency and disturbed by the rupture in the united front her parents had always maintained. She decides to quit her job working for her father, and move to Paris, where she embarks on affair with a French journalist and filmmaker; the affair is marked by rather more passion on her side than on his. While she is in France, her father takes ill and later dies.

Such are the bare bones of the book (though events are not related in the order in which they appear above) but much again consists of remembered scenes of childhood in China and in America (from where the family had fled the occupying Japanese), of the more recent past, of birthdays and deaths. As well as the shifts in time and space, there are also occasional shifts in point of view, although the bulk of the text is written from Jane’s perspective. Such shifts occur freely, with few, if any, demarcations to help orient the reader. The following excerpt will serve as an example:

He picked up the loose end of the towel under her body and with it brushed off the hairs. Then he raised her hips to draw away the towel which he took compactly folded into the bathroom. He returned with another towel which he had soaked in very hot water, then wrung out, and placed it folded and steaming between her thighs. He turned out the light, lifted her and placed her between the sheets.

With a clang amah pulled out the stopper from the hole in the sink. Water rushed down the pipes in choking gurgles. Amah finished washing Third Christine. Her turn next.

Amah was taught to be clean and with a vengeance she kept her charges clean. Her nails bore relentlessly through the hair, tore sickeningly against the tense scalp. She felt her face pushed lower into the hole of the basin. Her hands groped and found the sides of the basin to which she clung for support. Rivulets of soap blinded her, streamed down her face, into her ears, her nose and down her neck. Stiff and unbreathing she thought she could stand it no longer but suddenly she felt water being poured by the cupfuls on her head, the noise of the tumbler catching the water from the tap, and breathing deep with relief heard her wet hair squeak from cleanliness through amah’s fingers.

She wrenched her head free from the weight of his shoulder in order to take in deep gulps of air. Mute roars raced through caverns of her head. Clasping his body tightly, she tensed her hip muscles and in a final effort rose and met him.

Fourth Jane’s lover cuts her hair (including her pubic hair) and takes her to bed. A childhood memory is triggered by association – but is it the hair-cutting or the sex that triggers it? Or the steaming towel? It isn’t made clear; why such memories rush into our minds at any given moment is often unclear. The sexual connotations of the water going down the plughole are not hard to discern; it might also suggest to readers the sudden onrush of memory, or the inexorable disappearance of time. Jane’s intense remembered experience of having her hair washed comes over as somewhat sexual; at the same time, it’s written almost like a torture scene. I thought, too, about the earlier description Amah gives to the young Jane of the long-haired ghost of a drowned woman, a figure from Chinese folklore. There’s a struggle for air in both the act of being washed and the act of having sex with her lover – a struggle in both instances taken to the point of desperation, and ended by a sudden release and deep breaths. Alas, the effect is spoiled just a little by the mute roars racing through the caverns of her head – a line that might have been written in anticipation of the Bad Sex Award.

As the excerpt indicates, punctuation in this book is stripped down to necessities, with commas and full stops often being dispensed with. Speech marks are left out altogether. Chuang Hua’s prose employs several stylistic modes: generally short, spare dialogue, occasionally giving way to more expansive speeches; plain, somewhat exhaustive detail in the description of tasks and routines, particularly domestic (there’s lots of cooking in this work; at times it reads like a recipe book); and a lyricism that can be lush or precise and controlled. Here is an example of the prose at its most finely wrought:

She threaded the needle and continued to stitch at the point where she had left off. Days, weeks, months, years, the pains of births, absences, voyages, wars, losses, solitude, storms at sea, thirst and hunger, her Father dead, miles of silks newly dyed floating sullen and heavy in the waters of the canal, silks twisted and looped oozing dripping colors not yet fastened into the fabric from overnight soaking in the canal, silks unfurled and drying in the sun on the road by the edge of the canal.

In the space of one short paragraph, we move from Fourth Jane sewing in the present to the whole expanse of her own and her family’s history to a specific image from her childhood in China. The recent death of her father is linked to that image by the dead/dyed pun; the silks floating in the canal suggest dead bodies in water – an image that does in fact occur later on in the book as Jane recalls a scene from war-torn China. Her family’s present, her birth country’s history and her own personal memory are thus concentrated. The description of that remembered image is remarkable for the density of its sound-patterning. As well as the repetition of individual words (silks and canal), there’s the recurrence of ‘l’s, ‘s’s, ‘n’s and short ‘i’s, as well as more localised alliteration. I particularly like the ‘looped oozing dripping colors’.

Jane’s memories of China exert, naturally enough, a powerful grip on her, for it is a past that cannot be recovered, a land to which she cannot return. The question of her identity as a Chinese-American is a central theme of the book, examined most closely in a couple of scenes between her and her French lover. The latter suggests she go back to China, claiming that America is not her country, that she is as much an exile there as she is in France. But for Jane, it is too late; China for her can now only exist in memory, both cherished and painful. When the pull of nostalgia for a lost homeland becomes too strong, it leads to a divided self. As she tells her lover, ‘I can’t separate any more’. The irony is that she is able to say this only when she is in Paris, separated from both America and her close-knit Chinese family. Her lover is not convinced, accusing her of betraying her country. His is a naive and presumptuous attitude, of course; one remembers the year of publication and the French setting (though there is no direct reference to les événements), the popularity of Maoist dogma among French leftists of the time. The conversation between them is prompted by his reading of the New York Times, which he condemns as stupid and reactionary (Jane amusingly replies that ‘[in] certain circles in America it is considered almost left’). He seeks to apply a simplistic, rather uninformed political interpretation to her situation, which she rejects, being alive, as he is not, to the intertwining of the personal and the political, as well as more knowledgeable.

Poignantly, Jane weeps while watching The Searchers repeatedly (the film is unnamed, but easily recognizable from the description). One of the defining American works dealing with race, otherness and community, it portrays three contrasting modes of society: the harsh, bigoted, male-dominated individualism represented by John Wayne’s character; the closed-off, unassimilated savagery of the Indians (I write Indians, rather than Native Americans, because I am describing a politcally incorrect film, not because I am personally rejecting the more accepted term); and the new, supposedly multi-racial dispensation represented by the younger characters. Where might Fourth Jane’s sympathies lie here? As a child of two cultures, transplanted from the place of her birth into a different culture with a different language and way of living, Debbie, the Natalie Wood character (who as a child is abducted and raised by Comanches), would seem to provide a probable figure of identification. That would equate her parents’ homestead and the community of which her parents were members with the lost China of Jane’s childhood. Both Jane and Debbie were forced from their homes by violence: in the former case, the Japanese invasion of her country; in the latter, the slaughter of her family and her own abduction. With this equivalency, ‘civilized’ white America (mostly white) stands in for China, while the ‘barbarian’ Comanche stand in for white America. Significantly, Jane’s brother James marries a white woman who is referred to as a barbarian. On the other hand, to many white Americans, Jane and her family will always be barbarians by virtue of their otherness, just as the Comanche will always be heathen savages to Ethan Edwards, the bitter, racist war veteran who is the film’s hero or anti-hero. There may even be something of Ethan Edwards in Dyadya, Fourth Jane’s father, both being apparently iron-willed authoritarians who reject racial otherness – the former by seeking to kill Debbie, his niece, because he believes her to be tainted by years of living as a Comanche; the latter by shunning his son because he has married a white woman without consulting him. Both seek to exert what they see as their rights of ownership over their young relations: Edwards by claiming the right to kill his niece, Dyadya by claiming the right to veto his son’s choice of spouse. Identifying Dyadya with Edwards might then put Fifth James, rather than Fourth Jane, in the Debbie role, for at the point that she watches the movie, she is still living in America and hasn’t yet met the Frenchman with whom she will conduct an affair. Both Edwards and Dyadya soften their positions before the end: Edwards catches up to the fleeing Debbie, sweeps her in her arms and says “Let’s go home”, while Dyadya visits the young couple against the wishes of his own wife. The ambivalence of the Debbie/Jane/James identification reflects the ambivalence of Jane’s attitude to her brother’s marriage; she begins as the loyal daughter who supports her parents’ refusal to recognize the couple, breaks with her father when he changes her mind, yet ends up having her own relationship with a ‘barbarian’. When Edwards first meets the teenaged Debbie after many years of searching, she states that she does not wish to go back to white society because she has become ‘one of them’ (i.e. Comanche). As a response to the fear of assimilation, to losing her sense of ethnic identity and thus her connection to the homeland from which she has been exiled, Jane plays the role of dutiful Chinese daughter, working for her father’s company and largely submitting to his will (she later reflects that it is barbarians who defy their fathers). She has left the family home by this point, but even that first step to autonomy is difficult. What is the price of such a sense of duty? Her father may have her best interests at heart, but is his judgement always sound? What is Ethan Edwards’ attitude to his niece: that she must be killed or rescued? What is Dyadya’s attitude to his son: that he must be shunned or brought back into the fold? The question Jane faces is whether she can attain autonomy while remaining so closely tied to family, ethnic community and memories of a lost homeland. Her identity as a Chinese person (as she conceives of it) is at odds with her identity as an inidvidual. Later, in Paris, she admits that to some extent, like Debbie, she has become ‘one of them’ – only, the American part of herself is one equal half of the whole rather than the whole itself. This apparently healthy realization comes when she is away from America and away from her family. Edwards says to Debbie once he catches up to her by a stream (or says in the book’s account of the film) ‘Cross. You don’t belong here. You belong with us’. Jane does cross, but she crosses away from both of her homes, to a third, neutral space. She rejects both ‘here’ and ‘us’ in order to arrive at (or begin to arrive at) an equal acceptance of ‘here’ and ‘us’ (which have become, from her French vantage point, ‘there’ and ‘them’). When she returns to both, it is to be at her father’s side as he lies dying, which complicates and perhaps undoes the answers to which she had been working while away.

I’ll end with what I think is the loveliest bit of writing in the book, which beautifully expresses its irresolution and avoidance of fixity:

There are two gates in the north wall, three in the south, two in the east and two in the west. Winds blow from all sides. In the center is stillness. Winds blow from all sides. The gates are open. The center shifts.