“Secret sense not really secret. We just call secret because everyone has, only forgotten . . . Memory, seeing, hearing, feeling, all come together, then you know something in your heart. Like one sense, I don’t know how to say, maybe sense of tingle. You know this: Tingly bones mean rain coming, refreshen mind. Tingly skin on arms, something scaring you, close you up, still pop out lots of goose bump. Tingly skin on top a you brain, oh-oh- now you know something true, leak into your heart, still you don’t want to believe it.” (102)
During my first Goodreads book challenge in 2015, I read Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. Ever since, I wanted to read more of her books. The Bonesetter’s Daughter, for example, but I never added it to my library wish list and never scanned the shelves for Tan’s books when I did drop by the library.
When I was browsing the shelves at the Wicker Park branch, waiting for the bus, I wandered over to the T’s and searched for Tan’s books. Sure enough, there they were. Except no Bonesetter’s Daughter; only The Hundred Secret Senses. I pulled the copy from the shelf and hurried down to the checkout desk so I wouldn’t miss the bus.
The Hundred Secret Senses is about two half-sisters: Olivia Laguni and Kwan Li. Olivia is half-Chinese, and uneasy with her patchwork family. Her half-sister Kwan, who came over from China when Olivia was young, speaks mangled English and embarrasses Olivia. Oh, and Kwan has “yin eyes,” which means she can see and communicate with the dead. The novel is split into two narratives. Olivia tells of her grudge against her sister, and Kwan tells a story of her past life in Manchu China.
Much like The Joy Luck Club, I loved reading Tan’s narratives. Luckily, there were only two to keep track of in The Hundred Secret Senses. Much of the time, I found myself wondering which narrative I enjoyed reading more: Kwan’s or Olivia’s. I wanted to know about Miss Banner (even if Olivia didn’t) and China in the mid to late 1800s. I also wanted to know why Olivia disliked her sister, why she was leaving her husband Simon, and if she would never not have a grudge against Kwan. Both narratives drove me to read to the next narrative to pick up where it had left off, and eventually, both blended together near the end of the novel.
“The Hakkas there didn’t admire my eye that a ghost horse had knocked out. They pitied me. They put an old rice ball into my palm and tried to make me a half-blind beggar. But I refused to become what people thought I should be.” (68)
As I was reading Kwan’s narrative, I realized how little I knew of Chinese history. I have a faint knowledge of China in the early 1900s, and I remember learning about the different dynasties in my AP World History class in tenth grade. But other than that? Nothing. There were times during Kwan’s story of Miss Banner where it was difficult for me to put into context what was happening around the world at that time. Knowing more about Manchu China definitely would’ve provided more context, but readers don’t need to know everything about Chinese history to follow Miss Banner’s story.
I don’t read books that feature two or more narratives that often. As I was reading The Hundred Secret Senses (and again when I was reading The Blind Assassin a couple weeks later), I wondered how Tan wrote the book. Did she write Kwan’s narrative first? Or Olivia’s? When the story idea appeared in her head, was it of Kwan’s or Olivia’s? Or did she write the narratives as she went along? It’s always interesting to see what writing process authors might have gone through.
I’m hoping I can add Amy Tan’s other books to my reading list this year. Because it’s been two years since I’ve read Joy Luck Club, I don’t know which book I enjoyed more. As with Joy Luck Club, The Hundred Secret Senses should be on your reading list as well.