Monday, February 7, 2011

*Three Sisters, by Bi Feiyu

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
282 pp
Originally published as a trilogy
Sanyu: 玉米 (Yumi), 玉秀 (Yuxiu), 玉秧 (Yuyang)

Three Sisters came to my attention when it was nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2010, the shortlist of which will be announced next week.  Bi Feiyu's competitors for this prize are as follows:

Upamanyu Chatterjee, Way to Go
Anosh Irani, Dahanu Road
Manu Joseph, Serious Men
Tabish Khair, The Thing About Thugs
Sarita Mandanna, Tiger Hills
Kenzaburo Oe, The Changeling
Yoko Ogawa, Hotel Iris
Usha K.R., Monkey-man
Criselda Yabes, Below the Crying Mountain

Even if Three Sisters doesn't make it to the shortlist, it was definitely worth the nomination. 

Ironically, the cover picture shows the symbol for triple happiness, a combination of the character for the traditional "double happiness", and one extra happiness character. I say ironically because there's nothing very happy about this novel.  Set in the People's Republic of China during the 1970s and 1980s, Three Sisters is the story of three young women, daughters of Wang Lianfang and his wife Shi Guifang, all of whom live in a rural area known as Wang Family Village.  There are eight children all told -- seven daughters and a son (Little Eight) who has just recently been born as the story opens.  Three of the daughters take center stage: Yumi (the eldest), Yuxiu (third in rank) and Yuyang, the youngest daughter.  Each has her own section of the book, although of course, the family ties play throughout the novel, as do the main themes of this novel: the connections between pain and destiny, as evidenced through what these three women have to endure in order to try to find their respective places in this world. The sisters (and other women around them) daily have to face the inequalities inherent in being born female and in being born in a rural area, and they have to deal iwth the pressures of upholding the family's status. Each sister's story revolves around her attempts to change her own fate and the pain each experienced while trying to take even some small measure of control over her own life. It's not a happy story, but rather more of a tale of how  power, oppression and sex all intertwine in fashioning the lives of these young women in these two decades prior to the blossoming of a market economy in China.

The first section details the life of Yumi, who has taken over the household. Her mother has given up, sitting around eating sunflower seeds, while Yumi takes charge of the domestic duties of the family. Her father is the local commune secretary, a position of some power and importance in their small village. Yumi knows her father is sleeping around, but also knows that his position will be her ticket out of the place in terms of a good marriage match. She spends a great deal of time disdainfully confronting her father's sexual partners, letting them know that she knows what's going on. But when her father's activities cross an unforgivable line, and when tragedy strikes two of her sisters, Yumi's future is shaken and she has to begin to try salvage something in her life as well as her family's status. She is intelligent and clever, and knows how to play the game to get where she needs to be, a quality which she tries to instill in her younger sister Yuxiu, the subject of the second section.

Yuxiu is stubborn, good looking and flirtatious, and able to size up a situation into which she can insinuate herself,  but when she does manage to leave Wang Family village, these traits turn against her, and not even her sister (who has married and left for a bigger city where Yuxiu shows up) can help her out when things go awry.

The third section, "Yuyang", takes place at a teacher-training school where Yuyang is studying, some ten years after events in the first two parts of the novel.  Yuyang realizes that above all, she must rely on her intelligence to see her through.   Because of her rural provenance and because she is rather plain, she is often picked on, and finds herself at the receiving end of one popular girl's wrath. As events proceed, she is taken advantage of  by one of the teachers (one who could make or break her stay at the school) who asks her to serve as a spy on other students. It is a position of some power, yet one in which Yuyang must do battle with her conscience after she agrees to do it.  And it's not just her surveillance activities that afford her a measure of control; she realizes that she must do what it takes, including using others, to keep from returning to the countryside. 

The first two sections are pretty straightforward narratives; the third is a bit different in tone and bit off kilter from the others, which is probably my biggest complaint about this novel. The author often wanders off a bit in this section; it is definitely not as tightly put together as the first two. Also, if you're looking for a good example of a novel that is set during China's Cultural Revolution, this may not be the one to read -- there are others that capture the experience in a more realistic fashion.  However, Three Sisters is very readable, the characters are believable, and the story will capture the reader's attention from the beginning. The sense of place and time are very well established.  The author also manages to throw in some sarcastic humor here and there, most of it dealing with the absurdity of the party's propaganda platitudes, and the scenes of village life are funny at times as well. Overall, though, this is not a novel someone would read for a feel-good kind of experience, but it's still a very good read.

fiction from China


  1. I have to say that I like the sound of this novel! Your review is beautiful too! I'm going to add it.

  2. thanks! I liked it; it's definitely not getting rave reviews, but it's a good read.

  3. I read this too as I have challenged myself to read Man Asia nominees and past winners as well. I enjoyed it. The details of having to go for everything (even a tampon) to a man, or the constant fear of disgracing yourself in the smallest ways is almost excruciating to read. It was a little uneven as you say but well worth reading. I've also read Serious Men**** and Hotel Iris***+ from the shortlist, and Dahanu Road**** from the longlist- my favourite so far. I haven't seen Three Sisters (or any of the other nominees now that I think about it) very much in the English blogosphere so thank you for reviewing it.

  4. I liked it, didn't love it, but I'm happy to have read it. Ihave several of the Asian Booker books still to read (sitting in a stack on the bedroom floor) & hope to get to them soon. By the way, happy to meet you! I'm definitely following your blog.

  5. I agree about that last section - so different from the others. I wish it had been written in the same style as the first sections, but I still enjoyed it. I can't see this winning the Man Booker, but it was worthy of the short list.

  6. Jackie -- I agree with all of your comments, but as time has shown, the Booker judges are full of surprises! I'm still smarting about Skippy Dies! (LOL).


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