Book Review: The 100 Secret Senses by Amy Tan

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Amy Tan first impressed me with The Joy Luck Club, a book that describes aspects of Chinese culture I had never before known. The Hundred Secret Senses was a nice walk back through Amy Tan’s words, a novel that felt nostalgic and beautiful as if I had read it and lived it before.

The novel focuses mainly on relationships: the relationship between the protagonist, Olivia, and her half-sister Kwan; the relationship between Olivia and her husband Simon (whom she’s separated from); and the relationship between the past and the present, time and every aspect of everyone’s life it touches. Olivia, a half-Chinese, half-American woman, feels a tension/anger towards her half-sister Kwan, an immigrant coming from China. Olivia hopes that her half-sister will be beautiful; the famed archetype of Chinese women. When Kwan arrives and she is not what was expected, Olivia begins a strange relationship consisting mostly of malice with Kwan.

Kwan is much older than Olivia and raises Olivia in a way. Kwan also claims to have a certain sight, which allows her to see/communicate with the dead. Kwan believes that the 100 secret senses, which all of us have, allow her to speak to the deceased. Throughout the novel, Tan includes another main story line, one that defines the relationship between Miss Banner, an American teacher stuck in China, and Nunumu, a Chinese one-eyed girl from a Chinese village. These people lived centuries ago and became friends under the threat of revolution and war in a small village of Christian missionaries. While at first these sections were confusing, especially because they come unpredictably at the start of a new chapter, I eventually came to appreciate and long for the story of Miss Banner and Nunumu. Mostly, I wanted to know how these two pertained to the lives of Kwan and Olivia.

Tan is an expert at weaving together many different story lines while allowing each storyline to exist strongly and beautifully. While Kwan and Olivia’s relationship and growth is arguable the main plot line, Olivia’s relationship with Simon, her childhood, her divorce, Simon’s relationship with his dead/pregnant ex-girlfriend the voyage she takes to China, the story of Miss Banner and Nunumu amidst the rebellion, and the other minor story lines seem to play out effortlessly amongst the other story lines, not impeding or competing but simply existing in a tremendously gorgeous way. Tan writes in such a spiritual way that certain passages have to be read multiple times to appreciate their beauty: Kwan speaks of her relationship to Olivia, saying: ‘I taught her to point and call out the five elements that make up the physical world: metal, wood, fire, water, earth. I taught her what makes the world a living place: sunrise and sunset, heat and cold, dust and heat, dust and wind, dust and rain. I taught her what is worth listening to in this world: wind, thunder, horses galloping in the dust, pebbles falling in the water.’ The relationship Olivia shares with Simon, her maybe ex-husband, maybe husband, also consists of beautiful sentences and explanations of love: ‘When I was with him, I felt as if a secret and better part of myself had finally been unleashed. I laughed harder, thought more deeply, felt more passionately about life I’d laugh often and show him that life with a spiritual soul mate didn’t have to be doom and gloom.’ Who doesn’t long for a love like this? That makes you better, in every sense of the word? The fact that these two people who shared a love this big are divorcing makes me want to scream, leads me to disbelieve in monogamy and true love all over again.

Thank God for Kwan who encourages Olivia to invite Simon to China with the two of them, who believes in their love when Olivia no longer can. ‘Do you realize that these are the same stars that the first lovers on earth saw?’ Such a hopeful statement, such a big love. Thank God it didn’t end so easily. But even Tan’s thoughts on love ending is beautiful: ‘I feel the grief for what we’ve lost: the excitement and wonder of being in the world at the same time and in the same place’ Lovers should always remember these sentiments, the stars and the wonder.

The Hundred Secret Senses turns into an adventure novel of sorts while the trio is in China: Olivia and Simon get separated while exploring the caves in the village, and in a delirious and insane sadness, Olivia begs Kwan to help her, which leads to Kwan’s disappearance. Before she disappears, however, Olivia realizes the truth: Miss Banner was her in the past life, just as Nunumu was Kwan in the same past life. Kwan goes in search of Simon, knowing she’d most likely become lost, in order to give Olivia what she should have given her in their past life together: love and loyalty. Miss Banner and her true love weren’t able to be together partly because of Nunumu, so Kwan sacrifices herself in order for Olivia to stay with her true love.

Kwan’s disappearance cuts deep, especially because Olivia and we never get a for sure answer as to what happened to her. But, the disappearance leads Olivia back to Simon, and to important epiphanies: ‘Now I’m looking at the heavens again, only now I no longer feel it is a vacuum for hopes. I see that it holds up the stars, the planets, the moons, all of life, for eternity. I can always find it, it will always find me. It promises nothing but to be continuous and mysterious. And if only I can remember to look at the sky and wonder, I can use it as my compass. I can find my way through chaos.’

Tan excels in not giving readers a completed story, an unsure ending. Olivia becomes pregnant with Simon’s baby, and although it seems like the happy ending we wanted for the couple, Olivia admits that the two are not exactly together, are still working on their multiple issues. But, the novel ends with Olivia finding hope, with believing in the power of love and the transcendence throughout time. ‘The world is not a place but the vastness of the soul. And the soul is nothing more than love: limitless, endless, all that moves us toward knowing what is true. I once thought love was supposed to be nothing but bliss. I now know it is also worry and grief, hope and trust. And believing in ghosts- believing that love never dies.’ Like Kwan, Olivia now believes in Yin eyes, in seeing people after death, in feeling them forever, in this lifetime and the ones to come afterwards. As Olivia says, ‘If people we love die, we find them with our 100 secret senses.’

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