But only in death could I confirm this.”
“My first thoughts were confused, for clearly this was the real world. But surely I no longer belonged here. When would I take my journey to the afterlife?”
“My souls spiral down and come to rest on the altar.
We are ready now, says a stern voice, and there is a taste of mustard at the back of my tongue. My yang soul…he resembles my grandfather as I’ve seen him in photographs…
Yes, let’s begin. A new voice tinkles like wind chimes, accompanied by the scent of camellia. The bright ember of my yin soul dances in mid-air, circling the confines of the courtyard. She comes to rest beside the old scholar, a schoolgirl of fifteen with deep brown eyes below wispy bangs, a long pigtail over one shoulder.
Leiyin needs to remember, says a third voice. My hun soul flies down from the beams overhead and I feel my hair being pulled, a light, playful tug. Its image joins the other souls. It manifests as a silhouette of light, shaped like a human, as brilliant as the morning sun and as featureless. Before she can ascend to the afterlife, she needs to understand the reason for her detention in this world.”
Leiyin’s yang soul goes on to explain more to her: “You could say its the afterdeath. And you’re still here because in life you were responsible for a great wrong.” Leiyin responds by saying that she does not know anything about a great wrong and her yin soul responds” “Relive your memories. Only then will you understand what you must do to ascend to the afterlife.”
Leiyin has serious concerns that her three souls will take her somewhere in her past and then abandon her: “So we will go together? You won’t go now and leave me here?” Relief.
“We are your souls, we’re part of you, my yang soul snaps. We can’t leave until you do. He glares at me through moon-shaped lenses.
“Don’t mind yang, says my yin soul, who has finished braiding her hair. He’s not happy unless he’s berating someone.
Where should we begin? my hun soul asks. On the day of the party?”
All three souls agree that that should be the starting point and the hun soul explains that is so because that is the day that Leiyin stepped off the path that had been paved for her.
So begins the long process of recalling and reflecting upon her life in an attempt to discover what the “great wrong” was that she must make amends for before she can enter the after life. Some readers might find this premise too challenging to accept and this would be a shame because it would mean missing out on a beautifully written and incredibly thoughtful story, one set in a very interesting time in Chinese history. It is the time of the conflict between the Nationalists under Sun Yat-sen and the rise of the Communist party with a young Mao Zedong being given a mention at one point.
Song Leiyin lives on an estate, the centre of which is the Old Garden, a “huge private park with a man-made lake at one end large enough to contain an island of reeds and willows, home to families of ducks. Arranged around the Old Garden are a dozen courtyard houses, each nestled beside its own, smaller garden”. Her father attended university in Paris and built up the estate in the french style when he came home. Leiyin is the Third Young Mistress and is very close to her oldest sister Gaoyin and her second sister Sueyin. Her mother died when she was four. She has two older brothers, Changyin and Tongyin. Her father supports the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and is thinking of moving to Hong Kong and/or Singapore if the Japanese take over China. Leiyin’s second brother Tongyin attended universiy in Shanghai and is according to Leiyin, “the vainest person alive. And he tended to dab on too much cologne.” Tongyin is attending gatherings which include a poet, Yen Hanchin, who has recently been to Russia and who has associations with the Communist party. The latter aspect of Tongyin’s activity is unknown to his father and the Song family.
Tongyin takes Leiyin who hopes to go to university (her father does not approve of this as a suitable goal for a woman of her class) to a gathering where she meets Han Chen, the poet, and almost immediately is captured by the romance surrounding him as well as by his very attractive person: “Tall with hair just a bit too long. He was in his late twenties, perhaps as old as thirty. His shabby linen jacket made all the other men, in their tailored suits and silk ties, look merely ornamental. He was lean and lightly tanned. Beneath intense brown eyes his cheekbones were sharp, angled escarpments. He was both beautiful and intoxicatingly masculine. He was a poet. For several moments I couldn’t take my eyes away from him. .” Leiyin compared her reaction to that of Anna to Vronsky in Anna Karenina which she has been reading.
Throughout the process of remembering her life and examining it from the outside, so to speak, Leiyin and her three souls who offer fairly constant commentary on her choices and actions share this journey into her life. The souls become our eyes along with Leiyin’s after-the-facts perspective upon a life. It is a valuable exercise that the reader shares and which cannot help but lead to serious reflection, either while reading or later, upon one’s own life and choices.
One observation made by Leiyin as she studied her role as a wife to Baizhen I thought worth hanging on to was this:
“Only the living can inflict suffering on each other, I’ve learned.”
Another line which is repeated through the novel is the signature line which Hanchin uses at the end of each of his articles in the China Millennium magazine:
“You may lose all that you acquire, but knowledge and wisdom remain yours forever.”
A highly readable, rewarding novel. Janie Chang was born in Taiwan and now lives in Canada.