Reviewed by Martin Kich
Bone [New York: Hyperion, 1993] is the first published novel by Fae Myenne Ng, who has achieved some recognition as a writer of short stories. The novel does have elements that one might expect in both a first novel and in a novel by a young Chinese-American woman. It is a maturation story with a considerable degree of immediacy in its detailing and voice--such immediacy, in fact, that the novel seems clearly autobiographical, even if the characters' specific mix of circumstances has been contrived. In addition, there is great emphasis on the complexities in the protagonist Leila's often strained relationships with her mother and her sisters and, almost by extension, in her relationships with her step-father and her new husband. All of these relationships are profoundly affected and ultimately defined by the crisis of her sister Ona's sudden suicide. Notably, this family crisis is played out in largely private, domestic scenes, so that the broader milieu of San Francisco's Chinatown is always subordinated to the family's situation, reflected in the microcosm of their existence. Lastly, because Leila and her sisters are first-generation Americans, the process of their self-definition inevitably involves considerations of what it means to be both Chinese and American. They struggle with the characteristic dilemma of the children of immigrants, finding a resolution to the conflict between the demands of heritage and those of assimilation.
Despite these rather
predictable elements, Bone is a striking achievement. Ng shows all of
her characters' limitations and eccentricities and yet reveals the details so
gradually and naturally that even a "character" such as her
step-father Leon (whose life is an almost incredible record of hopeful schemes
and predictable failures, and whose main preoccupation is the invention of
whimsical household gadgets out of junk) is memorably individualized.
Interestingly, the major characters initially seem stereotypical, then
compellingly idiosyncratic, and finally profoundly representative. Along these
same lines, Ng demonstrates considerable subtlety in differentiating the
attitudes and expectations of the generations, so that their conflicts are
conveyed with an often painful intimacy, and not merely painted in broad,
familiar strokes. For instance, she deftly exhibits the paradox that the
generation of immigrants often saw the American Dream in their children
because their margin for survival in this country was not much of an
improvement over their bleak possibilities in the old country.