I’m back, and just as I predicted, the books I finished before the holidays seem so so far away, as if I’d read them a century ago. What impression has this novela by Eileen Chang left me, then, a “century” later? A good one…
It’s incredible to see the difference of treatment between this tale of love and war (almost fairy tale, as it ends well despite the odds) and this other story “The tattered cloak“, almost on the same theme, written by Berberova the exact same year. Berberova’s tone was so gloomy and clearly depressed, while Chang still sees hope under the most dire circumstances: a stilted, repressive and hypocritical old Chinese family and the sudden onset of war in Hong Kong after Pearl Harbor attack.
The title almost says it all — at least, the story is as romantic as its title, but romantic with a surprisingly sour twist. Bai Liu-su is a divorced woman who has been taken back by her family in Shanghai in the early 1940s – at 28, she’s a disgrace who should hide away at “home” for the rest of her life, at the mercy of her female relatives’ scorn and her male relatives’ squandering habits (they got her money back as well, of course). She should certainly not, as she turns out to, outshine her younger cousins who are trying to get married. She unwillingly attracts rich and attractive Fan’s attention, and with the help of an unexpectedly friendly matchmaker, conspires to woe him.
But it’s not all Cinderella. Bai is deeply distrustful of men and marriage, and Fan has a strong reputation of a playboy. They find rather unconventional arrangements before truly falling in love. She must resist him for her fragile reputation’s sake, and yet if she resists him too much she will go back to the tediousness of her sad fate. But as she agrees to dance and spend an evening with him without chaperon, in her family’s eyes she has already compromised herself. So she doesn’t really have much of a choice when she travels to Hong Kong with the hope of seeing Fan again.
I had the wrong view (from Taiwanese friends where her works are very popular classics) that Eileen Chang’s stories were flowery romances. But instead, I discovered a rather dry view of male / female relations, bordering on cynicism. How interesting and refreshing! All too often, the pictures we get of old Shanghai are all greed, luxury and misery coexisting in crowded, dark opium dens. But I like the ideas that women living there had other aspirations and other options than just joining the Communists! Shanghai in this story is the dark side, the closed family circle, while Hong Kong represents the sunny side, nature and sea, with its expatriate community and its opening on Western ideas. A nice discovery!
Here’s Dorothy review of the short story collection. If you’ve reviewed this story, please let me know, I’ll link to your post as well!