Book Quote:

“Yumi’s mother grew lazier by the day. The physical toll of childbirth had undeniably affected her vitality. But it was one thing to hand Little Eight over to Yumi, and yet another to turn the whole household over to her. What does a woman live for anyway? Isn’t it to run a household? If she shuns even the authority to do that, what besides a rotten egg with a watery yolk is she? But there were no complaints from Yumi, who was content with the way things were. When a girl learns to care for a baby and take charge of a household, she can wake up that first morning after her wedding day fully prepared to be a competent wife and a good daughter-in-law, someone who need not be in constant fear of what her mother-in-law thinks.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody (AUG 9, 2010)

Three Sisters by Bi Feiyu is a tragicomic novel, a tongue-in-cheek parody, about three sisters in the Wang family living in Wang Family Village in rural China: “Many rural villages are populated mainly by families with the same surname.”   The novel opens in 1971 and ends in 1982. It is structured like three novellas though it is described by the publisher as a novel. The book’s strength, and also its weakness, is that it is primarily comprised of character studies without a lot of plot. This can make it less accessible to some readers. Throughout the novel, the author utilizes Chinese proverbs, aphorisms and adages to make points. It comes out sounding something like a Greek chorus, adding a comic element to what is often heart-rending or calamitous. It is also very culture-specific which makes it harder to access for many readers.

The background is Maoist China following the Cultural Revolution. The position of women is lowly. They have no say in their lives except through subtle avenues where they can make small choices that may have a large impact on their lives and those in their community. This is often achieved by how a salutation is given, who is addressed and who is ignored, and what gossip is spread among them.

The book opens in 1971 with the story of Yumi, the oldest sister in the Wang family. The family is comprised of seven daughters and one son. Yumi’s mother has given up the care of her son to Yumi who takes her brother around the village with pride as though she were his mother. In essence, she is the head of her family. Her father is a philanderer and a drunk who has the job of commune-secretary. He falls from grace when an affair he is having with the wife of an active duty soldier comes to light. This impacts Yumi’s marriage plans. She had been engaged to an aviator from a neighboring town but he pulls out of the engagement because of Yumi’s father’s disgrace. Yumi is a strong woman who has plans – she wants to be associated with power. She manages to become the second wife to a powerful man in another village. Though her heart is broken and she is filled with embarrassment and shame, she proceeds with her life, giving the appearance of “one of those intrepid women in propaganda posters, a woman who could charm any man and still look death in the face without flinching.”

The second part of the book is about the third daughter,Yuxio. Yuxio is a flirt and is described as cunning and two-faced, like a fox or a snake. She and Yumi have never gotten along and she has never respected Yumi’s authority. After her father’s downfall, she goes to attend a movie and during the course of the film she is abducted and raped. Yumi does her best to help her maintain face in the village but is soon gone off with her husband to a new town. On top of the shame associated with the rape, Yuxio gets into a fight with one of her younger sisters that is observed by many in the village. The outcome of this fight is that Yuxio becomes a village outcast.

Yuxio leaves her village and travels to Yumi’s home where she seductively entrenches herself into the good graces of Yumi’s stepdaughter and husband. The next thing Yumi knows, Yuxio is living with her family. There is already a wedge between Yumi and her stepdaughter and this is widened by Yuxio. Though Yuxio actually despises the girl, she fawns and acts obsequiously towards her. She is so underhandedly awful and provocative in her behaviors that she is described as “a dog that can’t stop eating shit.” She tries to install herself into the good graces of various town folk but over and over she sabotages herself by her indiscreet and false pretenses. It doesn’t take long for others to catch on to her back stabbing personality. Yumi becomes pregnant and Yuxio loses her power at home. By the end of this section Yuxio is in much worse shape than when she started. She has ended up fooling nobody, not even herself.

The third chapter in the novel is about Yuyang, seventh sister, and takes place in 1982. Yuyang has won a scholarship to a teaching college and gets involved in the intrigue of the school, working on underground intelligence. This consists primarily of keeping an eye on her fellow students and teachers to see who is fraternizing with whom and reporting these events to her superior. She has read a lot of Agatha Christie and feels up to the job.

The novel ends without pulling together the lives of the three sisters. There is no follow-up to the other two stories and no real connecting of them. That is why I consider this book to be comprised of novellas rather than considering it a novel. I think this book might appeal to readers who are familiar with Chinese literature and culture. It is not likely to have widespread appeal because of stylistic issues. I found it informative and interesting, at times laugh-out-loud funny but I am sure that there is a lot here that went past me. (Translated by Howard Goldbatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin.)

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 10 readers
PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (August 9, 2010)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More from Chinese writers:

The Dictionary of Maqiao Han Shaogong


August 9, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Character Driven, China, Translated, World Lit

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