The life prospects for a girl from a poor family in rural China in the nineteenth century are practically non-existent. Her status will forever be tied to her husband, but the lack of a dowry places a hard cap on the status of husband she can attract.
So it is for Lily until her foot-binding results in perfectly-formed feet. Suddenly she is a desirable commodity. At the age of seven, she is matched as laotong (old-same) with Snow Flower, complete with a signed contract and a warning that this relationship is supposed to be more intimate and long-lived than a marriage. Snow Flower introduces herself to Lily by sending a fan on which she has written a poem in nu shu, a language designed expressly for women to communicate with each other away from the prying eyes of men. Things are looking up for Lily, but Snow Flower is harboring secrets that threaten the very core of the relationship.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a story of a mismatched pair trading places. Lily’s perfect feet and simple-but-dutiful upbringing causes her star to rise, while Snow Flower’s falls. However, this is no mere lesson in peasant morality. Instead, the narrator is an older Lily reflecting on her life and spinning the story of how she gained her position in a world that undervalues women. Her account plays up––plausibly––her own naïveté such that the reader can sympathize with her feelings of betrayal upon learning the secrets that others withheld from her, while the trick of presenting the story as simultaneously that of a young and old woman highlights how Lily, in turn, betrays those who she loves.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan does not concern itself with much of a world outside of the narrow one that Lily and Snow Flower exist in, but is nevertheless situated historically in a powerful way. Not only does See aim to inhabit the lives of women in nineteenth century China, but the book is filled with moments that locate in time, from the deleterious effects of opium to the hope that the imperial exam will elevate a family to an appearance of the Taiping Rebellion. Each of these profoundly shape the novel but the goings on of imperial policy or global diplomacy remain in the foggy distance. In fact, I found the time when a political issue strikes closest to home, involving the Taiping Rebellion and a forced flight into the mountains, among the weakest sections of what is otherwise a tightly constructed book.
Above all, See writes beautiful prose. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is all the more powerful for its precise lyricism that captures the joy of escaping with one’s friend to get a special treat, the fear of the unknown, the hope for the future, and the pain of loss. This same quality can also turn the story utterly devastating, such as when Lily recounts, in excruciating detail, the process of footbinding, its success for her and all of the ways it could go wrong.
Despite minor quibbles with one or two plot points, I loved Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, both as an exploration of women’s lives in 19th century China and as a discussion of memory in all of its messiness. There is an equal case to be made that Lily is the hero and villain of her own story, and See’s prose infuses her unrepentant delivery with nostalgia and regret.
I just finished Basma Abdel Aziz’ The Queue, a book that reads like if the history of the modern Middle East were co-written by Orwell and Kafka. I started Jonathan Kauffman’s Hippie Food this morning have been working my way through David Gooblar’s The Missing Course.