THE BONDMAID by Catherine Lim


Email this review


 A popular Singapore writer makes her American debut with a maudlin take on doomed love between master and slave. It's a supposedly shocking story--with its revelation that slavery was still practiced in 1950s Singapore--but, in fact, the shock is muted in a tale that has little modern resonance: Except for brief mentions of automobiles, the setting could be any time in Chinese history. The lack of concrete detail, the character's cozy chats with gods, and the prophetic dreams punctuating the narrative also make it seem more a sentimental melodrama than a searing indictment of hidden viciousness. When Han turns four, her hard- pressed pregnant mother sells her to the rich House of Wu. Han is to be a bondmaid, one of the enslaved women who clean and who must endure the lascivious attentions of visiting priests as well as male family members. Little Han is so upset by the sale that she becomes extremely ill, or, as the household sees it, possessed by demons that have to exorcised. When she recovers, she attaches herself to young Master Wu, the six-year-old grandson of the Matriarch and Patriarch. The children become friends and secret playmates. Meanwhile, the older bondmaids, jealous of Han's emerging beauty and spirit, plot her downfall. Finally, young Wu goes away to school, coming back only to marry the daughter of the House of Chang. Han, though, has never forgotten him. Eventually, the two become lovers, but when they're discovered, Han, now pregnant, is forced to leave. She gives birth to a son, who's taken from her and replaced with the baby girl Wu's wife has just borne. As storm clouds gather, Wu embraces the dying Han; following her death, the narrative suggests, she becomes a goddess, one who ``always saw and heard with compassion''--except in matters concerning the Wu and Chang Houses. Pulp fiction with an exotic gloss. (Author tour)

Pub Date: Oct. 23rd, 1997
ISBN: 0-87951-790-5
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Overlook
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 1997