I have a prejudice against what I call “women-life-stories” – the kind of book that narrates the life story of a girl, because I am too impatient for the slow, often ruminative style of sharing and reflection that the recount of a woman’s life almost necessarily entails. Therefore, I nearly passed this book over upon reading the blurb :
“Married at sixteen; divorced at nineteen; executed at twenty six.
In the twilight years of the Tang Dynasty, a young girl is given up by her mother and orphaned before she is five years old, yet rises to become one of the most famous and celebrated women of her age…”
I stopped there, thinking it was another of those stories celebrating the indomitable feminine spirit (I’ve had enough of sub-par determined-woman-finds-meaning-in-life books) and would have completely passed it by if I hadn’t suddenly recalled how much I enjoyed Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha“. Just as Arthur Golden had extensive exposure to Japanese culture, so was Justin Hill familiar with Chinese culture, having lived in China for several years (or so I researched)…I decided to give Passing Under Heaven a try.
I was beguiled by Hill’s simple, flowing prose. This is not a book that seizes your imagination and yanks you along at breakneck pace, but the ephemeral quality of it is equally entrancing. There is none of the dense metaphors and indulgent description I was cynically expecting. Instead, Hill moves the reader’s attention from the harsh life of women to the culture of the Tang dynasty with elegance. Little Hope, the only daughter of Concubine Hwa, is orphaned at seven and adopted into another family as Little Flower. As a woman she is named Lily, and pon being sold as a concubine to Minister Li, she becomes Mistress Yu. Minister Li has to juggle his grandmother’s dislike for concubines, his own wife, as well as Lily’s affections at once, while Lily, craving for purpose and excitement, is stifled by the docility and submission expected from women in the Tang dynasty. The tormented love between Minister Li and Lily is as classic a symbol in the Tang Dynasty as Heathcliff’s and Catherine’s love is in the Victorian Era.
From The Manual For Instructing Women.
To serve him.
To lie in his arms at night.
To fold his garments.
To bring him his food.
To pour his tea.
To heal his headaches.
To obey his commands.
To obey the commands of his mother.
To test the flavour of a dish or the heat of the wine.
To care for him in his old age.
These will be your joys in life.
The relationship between Minister Li and Concubine Lily soon sours terribly, and while Lily manages to leave the minister, neither she nor Minister Li truly get over their love. Lily becomes both a notorious seductress and a skilled poetess before eventually being punished for her crimes. More than a love story, Passing Under Heaven is a understated yet powerful book about the society of China a thousand years ago. The details on culture and era were believable and evocative; on the whole, the book was thoroughly enjoyable. For the Guardian review, see here.
I have mixed thoughts on Sparkling Cyanide. Rosemary Barton, a spoiled and beautiful heiress, was fatally poisoned at her own birthday party. For want of conclusive evidence suggesting otherwise, the case was closed as “suicide”. However, less than a year after Rosemary’s death, her husband, George Barton, receives anonymous letters indicating that Rosemary was a victim of murder. George takes it upon himself to re-investigate the circumstances of Rosemary’s alleged suicide. The witnesses of Rosemary’s death, each a potential murderer in the reader’s eyes, take turns to contemplate their opinions of, and relationships with, the late Rosemary.
These characters’ monologues make the strongest case for Sparkling Cyanide; they are by turns entertaining and sobering, and each has an intriguing mix of detective reasoning and human psychology. Neither a Hercule Poirot nor a Miss Marple mystery, the detective of this story is Colonel Johnnie Race, introduced mid-book as one who is “not good at small talk and might indeed have posed as the model of a strong silent man so beloved by an earlier generation of novelists.” Race is very likeable, calm and ineffable like Christie’s detectives are, with a bit of a paranoid, “Alastor Mad-Eye Moody” (JK Rowling’s Harry Potter) reputation.
Alongside the murder mystery is a dexterous narration of love in its various forms. Marriage and (in)fidelity are recurrents motive for each suspect and their personal lives are well depicted without overshadowing the main plot. Of George brooding over Rosemary’s extra marital affair, Christie writes :
“He’d known quick enough, sensed the difference in her. The rising excitement, the added beauty, the whole glowing radiance.”
A foil to the frivolous and selfish Rosemary is Alexandra Farraday, intelligent but awkward, outwardly reserved but inwardly passionate.
“From the day of their marriage she had realized that he did not love her in the same way as she loved him…That power of loving was her own unhappy heritage. To care with a desperation, an intensity that was, she knew, unusual among women! She would have died for him willingly; she was ready to lie for him, scheme with him, suffer for him! Instead she accepted with pride and reserve the place he wanted her to fill. He wanted her co-operation, her sympathy, her active and intellectual help. He wanted of her, not her heart, but her brains, and those material advantages with birth had given her. One thing she would never do, embarrass him by the expression of a devotion to which he could make no adequate return…(even after knowing of his affair), never for one minute did Sandra consider leaving him. The idea never even came to her. She was his, body and soul, to take or discard. He was her life, her existence. Love burned in her with a medieval force.”
Thumbs up also for Christie’s moments of dry humour, which avoid the trap of exasperating readers. In portraying a constantly distracted, extremely talkative aunt who has “stiffened into a pronouced spinsterhood”, Christie explains her convulated and confusing thoughts : “Aunt Lucilla’s reasoning was always crystal clear to herself.”
Since the novel is about romantic love, I also like the touch of closure the two youngest protagonists, Anthony and Iris, bring when they fall for each other and discuss their marriage at the end of the book :
“All that (murder) for money! […] Anthony – I don’t think I like my money very much. ”
“All right, sweet – we’ll do something noble with it if you like. I’ve got enough money to live on – and to keep a wife in reasonable comfort. We’ll give it all away if you like – endow homes for children, or provide free tobaccol for old men, or – how about a campaign for serving better coffee all over England?”
“I shall keep a little,” said Iris. “So that if I ever wanted to, I could be grand and walk out and leave you.”
“I don’t think, Iris, that that is the right spirit to enter upon married life.”
Agatha Christie captures a memorable cast of narrators and suspects, but the resolution fails to impress. The climax of the book, if well dramatized, is unsurprising. The explanation of the murder itself is thoroughly hurried through, the motive is thin and the murderer’s modus-operandi not ingenious enough after the suspense of the novel. For someone who was stumped by the possibilities and eager for the murderer to be revealed, I was quite disappointed. Looking back, although Sparkling Cyanide seems like one of those books which have been “written into a corner”, it still is a very worthwhile read.
From now on 4th March shall always have a special significance to me, not just as the day of my Results Release but the day of flooding of encouragement, prayer, support, luck, well wishes etc etc from friends and family! Thank you all for everything, guys, I would have nothing and be nowhere without all of you.
I’d gone back to school early to pay my library fines – or risk having my results witheld, the sheer absurdity of it! Nevertheless I paid up the whole 1/5 of a dollar and banged out a bit of Nightwish on the off-key piano beside the amphitheatre. The school’s changed a lot in the past three months. New project rooms by the library, ceilings scraped and new floors put in, a covered walkway from the MRT station to the school gate, which was very useful indeed because I alighted into a rainstorm. There was a riotous whole cohort reunion in the canteen; incidentally, thank goodness our canteen is just ‘the canteen’, not fancy-named after a famous someone-or-other. I went in school uniform and explained to my batchmates that I was anticipating having to retain, which was partly true. For the larger part, though, I wanted the priceless feeling of youth again. While it was nice to see the girls mostly dressed up and the guys mostly trimmed down to bald-tan-buff army proportions…they all looked so mature and too ready to grow up. It’s not easy to earn money doing something you like…!
A banner had been strung up, proclaiming our batch’s “Very Fine” results, which we analysed for tone and connotations, and pessimistically took as a euphemism – an ill omen, given the circumstances. We then met our biology teacher who revealed that this year’s performance for biology had taken a turn for the worse…but she stopped there. I don’t know how in the name of Dandenong Sasafras Woolloowoolloo I could have kept mum about my students’ results when they’re all jittery and bugging me nonstop like we were.
What a very specialized set of skills teachers have to pick up.
The principals were all gathered, the teachers and parents all there to celebrate/grieve with us, the sheer noise – everyone was excited, and I’d become so numb with tension by then, I was almost relaxed. This stomach-dropping anxiety comes in spurts and leaves my emotions little coagulated. So – the entire cohort singing the school song, enduring the stats and numbers and comparisons – knowing that they don’t mean anything about our individual reports, I’d forgotten my own trepidation and even when we were lining up by index number to get our reports I had sort of forgotten what I was suppose to be feeling or anticipating or…Gosh. I kinda just took the damn piece of paper and saw my grades and my teacher hugged me and I felt vaguely relieved. Then I sort of chanted my thanks and proceeded with the obligatory round of hi 5-ving and congratulations.
Thank God for everything. It feels stranged that having cut myself short of dreaming about today so many times, I finally sailed past the event without so much as a whoop. What’s more – for once, just for once, I’d like to know what I’m actually going to be doing by the end of this year. The endless long sickening wait for results and universities and scholarships is wearing me thin! Thin as spidersilk and frayed like a cobweb. I don’t even know which country I’ll be end up being in. So I give myself odd projects to do, though I used to want to slack relentlessly. But pokemon and Fire Emblem don’t satisfy me anymore. I suppose life’s like that, and in the meantime, I’ve found more to live for, more to worry about, more to fight for.
It’s my life, yeah it’s now or never
I ain’t gonna live forever
I just wanna live while I’m alive
– A Bleach AMV to It’s My Life, by Bon Jovi.