Revolutionary and domestic politics collide in this tale of a woman’s ghost attempting to understand her life decisions and make amends for her transgressions.
Set against the Chinese civil war, Chang’s debut novel explores the frustrations of intelligent women valued only for beauty and obedience. A young woman’s consciousness awakens at her own funeral, surrounded by her three souls: her yin, manifesting as a dancing schoolgirl; her yang, manifesting as an elderly scholar; and her han, manifesting as a silhouette of light. Until she can remember her sins, she cannot ascend to the afterlife and reincarnation; she runs the risk of becoming a hungry ghost, roaming the Earth for eternity. To help her remember, Song Leiyin’s souls make her watch her own life unfold again, beginning with the evening of her sister’s engagement party, the night she met Yen Hanchin. Born into a traditional and prosperous family, the three Song daughters realize their dreams are circumscribed. Leiyin’s eldest sister, Gaoyin, already married, worries that if she doesn’t conceive a child soon, her husband will take a concubine. Leiyin’s second sister, Sueyin, is betrothed to a well-connected young man far more interested in opium than the business world. Leiyin’s eldest brother, Changyin, waits in the wings to become the family patriarch, while her second brother, Tongyin, squanders his educational opportunities at college to drink and mingle with friends. Leiyin herself longs to continue school, to become a teacher, to make a difference in China. When she meets Hanchin—poet, translator and political agitator—Leiyin’s aspirations gain a romantic edge. Her plans to escape her father’s oppressive household, however, quickly land her in an unexpected marriage. Still, her ambitions and her desire for Hanchin simmer, waiting for a startlingly tragic opportunity. Now, her ghost must find a way to repair the damage wrought.
Historically and politically compelling, yet the three-soul plot device is contrived.