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      Volume 10 |Issue 35 | September 16, 2011 |


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Book Review

Bringing a Touch of Surrealism

Tulip Chowdhury

The Hundred Secret Senses
Author: Amy Tan
Publisher: Ivy Books

Olivia Laguni's half sister Kwan Li told her that when you really wish to see dead people you have to use your hundred secret senses. She tells Olivia that people with the yin eyes can see dead people's ghosts and she, Kwan has the yin eyes!

Olivia, a young woman in her late twenties and also the protagonist of the story begins telling the tale of her half- sister Kwan in first person from the day Kwan arrives in USA from China. The character of Kwan is remarkable for the hundreds of dreams and hopes that seem to hide within her. Kwan seems to be a mysterious character impregnated with secrets of life. Kwan is also a very loving person. She loves Olivia so much that she does not even look out for her own good. There are times when Olivia wants to fool her and yet when she sees that Kwan trusts her blindly she feels guilty about wanting to hurt the very person who is only a well wisher for her. Kwan seems to be a person who is forever riddling her world with hundred secrets. She has deep insight and has an uncanny way of knowing things beforehand. When Olivia and Simon, her husband, have a terrible fight, Kwan asks Olivia about the rift even though she has not spoken about it.

Kwan wants to take Olivia to China, she wants Olivia to see her father's country. As Olivia debates over going to China she gets a chance to do some photo journalism in the far away land. Much to Olivia's annoyance Kwan somehow arranges for Simon to go along because she says he is the one who will do the reporting. That was Kwan's way, she somehow got what she wanted. Once in Changmian, China, Olivia is perplexed at how different the Chinese people are in their life style. Secrets seem to be leaking out of Changmian ever since Olivia has come. Kwan, the forever mysterious woman confides of new secrets that makes Olivia think of China,

“If there was a time and a place to allow gut passion into my work, this is it in China, where I have no control, where everything is unpredictable, totally insane.”

Kwan tells the secret story of how Olivia's father made it into the USA, how he impersonated another man. Now Olivia finds that she does not know the real name of her own father. For Olivia things get more confusing as it comes out that Kwan is living her second life that she had drowned in her earlier life. Kwan claims to be in constant touch with the dead people and tells Olivia the story of her past life. She takes Olivia to a nearby mountain, a place that is haunted by the ghosts of people killed by the Manchus. There is a cave, mysterious cave from which people are not supposed to come out alive. The thousands of rocky representation of human forms are, she says the fossils of the people who have died on the mountain.

The saga entwined with mastery of words reaches its climax when one day Olivia and Simon venture out onto the haunted mountain. Olivia manages to clamber back home by dusk but Simon goes missing. And it is when Kwan says that her yin eyes do not see Simon that Olivia believes that he is still alive. As she waits for him counting seconds she wonders if Kwan's prediction that Simon and she will get together again will also come true. As strange and unexplainable things keep happening Kwan disappears. The police could find no trace of her and Olivia is left to wondering if her half-sister will come again in her next reincarnation.

The Hundred Secret Senses is a saga that holds the reader spell bound with its rich imagination. There is a touch of surrealism when even the people seen around seem to be really living their second or third after lives. There is a story of deep love entwined, the love of a sister to the point at which Kwan supports Olivia till her last breath. There is also the romance that blossoms and sustains all odds between Olivia and Simon. The historical background of the people of Changmia gives the reader a deep insight into the deep rooted superstitions and beliefs of the ancient Chinese people. In the midst of the mystery there is a touch of humor also. For instance of Olivia's mother we read, “My mother has always suffered from a kind heart, compounded by seasonal rushes of volunteerism.” The plot of the story is intriguing enough to make the reader hold on to breath every once in a while. Mystery, romance, history and humor; all seems to be blended into this super must read book by Amy Tan!


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