An engrossing story, a compelling narrative voice: Three Souls is an easy book to recommend.
Because of the setting and romantic elements of the story, it’s tempting to draw comparisons with the novels of Amy Tan and Ai Mi.
Given the readability, one might think of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees and Donna Morrissey’s Downhill Chance.
The thematic importance of friendship and sisterhood could call to mind Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.
The political aspects of the novel, revealed through relationships, might resonate with readers of Steven Hayward’s The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke and Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes.
But, ultimately, the reason why it’s tempting to simply allude to other stories is because the one aspect of Three Souls that readers will most want to discuss is the story itself. And for a reader who’s spoiler-phobic, that creates a challenge.
Nonetheless, much of the appeal of the story rests in the author’s confidence, in her voice. This is evident early on, when the three souls of the title debate the best beginning for the tale to follow.
“Where should we begin? My hun soul asks. On the day of the party? Yes, the day of the party, the other souls agree. The day you first stepped off the path that was paved for you, my hun soul says.”
It’s intriguing, isn’t it? The incorporation of a variety of voices, all privy to the information that the reader seeks to understand, each with a slightly differently perspective on Leiyin’s story but intricately involved.
The strong scenic elements of the story add to the immediacy and credibility of the narrative voices.
“We were in her father’s library, which was much smaller than ours. Its shelves contained more popular novels and wuxia, martial arts tales, than Tang Dynasty classics. When we had come in, her father had half asleep in an armchair, a newspaper draped across his lap. I had hesitated, but Nanmei woke him up with a rustle of the paper.”
And the sensory elements in the story further intensify the readers’ experiences of the narrative.
“Each feather on a flycatcher’s wing glistens blue as it skims past. Even from inside the temple I can hear the daily rituals of town life : washerwomen scrubbing clothes on the banks of the canal, water lapping as flat-bottom boats are poled on their way along the banks, cries of greeting gossip. And the scents. The fragrance of early-blooming clematis in the next courtyard fills my nostrils as though I’m standing beneath its rustling vines. The smell of garlic wafting over from the kitchen is so strong I can taste it.”
Strengthening readers’ commitment to the story are the complexities that arise with the intersection beween political and personal relationships.
“I had no idea Stepmother knew anything about General Cha or the political climate of the country. She never said anything when my father and brothers aired their opinions.”
Even readers who might not have an understanding of Chinese politics in the 1930s will easily identify with the familial politics at work.
“Battles between Nationalist and Communist armies carved China into regions where boundaries and loyalties shifted every week, and the Northern Expedition had finally taken Peking from the warlords. In our town, though, there was more talk of the lantern contest and the price of winter melons than news about the front lines. On the streets of Pinghu, the daily rhythms of life flowed on, complacent of the waters of the town’s canals, its good folk living each day as unsuspecting as tiny crustaceans in a tidal pool.”
Shifting boundaries and loyalties make for exciting stories. Three Souls is no exception. Leiyin’s experiences, which readers recognize from the opening page will end in her death, are wholly compelling.
“My words were defiant, but the escape plans I had conceived and discarded were as numerous as memorial stones in a graveyard. How could I get away this time?”
But although the story itself is engaging, it is the structure of the narrative voices which makes Three Souls such a satisfying read. Their observations invite readers to take a front seat to the drama as it unfolds.
“At last, my yang soul grumbles. You took long enough to realize it. But he sounds pleased and sweet honey coats my tongue. That was a very happy day. My yin soul stands at the summit where light wind makes her hair ribbons flutter. Lilacs sent the air. It was certainly the day I discovered I could be truly happy. Look, says my hun soul. The train has pulled into the station.”
In between, from the moment that the souls agree to begin the story with the party to the moment in which the train pulls into the station, a young woman’s life unfolds and captivates readers.
Janie Chang’s Three Souls will charm a myriad of readers.