Ghosts in the Garden
PEONY IN LOVE
By Lisa See
Random House. 284 pp. $23.95
Lisa See's new novel continues her exploration of the Chinese past. Peony in Love is in no formal sense related to her bestselling Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, or her memoir On Gold Mountain, but it profits from the same sensibility and comes from the same pen. This book has a three-part structure ("In the Garden," "Roaming with the Wind," and "Under the Plum Tree") and is deeply rooted in such texts as Tang Xianzu's opera "The Peony Pavilion," first produced and published in 1598. Importantly, too, it derives from The Three Wives Commentary of 1694, "the first book of its kind to have been published anywhere in the world to have been written by women -- three wives, no less." As historical fiction, Peony in Love attempts -- almost entirely successfully -- to immerse the reader in a world both strange and distant; whereas Snow Flower dealt with 19th-century China, the action of this book transpires two centuries before.
See's love story takes as its narrator a girl dead at 16 and doomed to be a "hungry ghost" for decades until she can be "transformed into an ancestor." That narrator, young Peony, is a beguiling mix of innocence and experience; we watch her both as the pampered and studious daughter of a wealthy family and as a starveling wisp of air who cannot negotiate corners and must avoid mirrors and swords. There's a prodigious amount of information here digested and conveyed.
"I thought of the gifts my father would send with the pieces of pig," Peony tells us, "sprigs of artemisia to expel evil influences before my arrival, pomegranates to symbolize my fertility, jujubes because the word sounded like having children quickly, and the seven grains, because the character for kernel was identical in writing and sound to offspring." This comes as preparation for marriage. Peony dies before that ceremony can be consummated, however, and here is part of how -- still conscious, still serving as our narrator -- she is prepared for death:
"Mama placed a thin sliver of jade in my mouth to safeguard my body. Second Aunt tucked coins and rice in my pockets so I might soothe the rabid dogs I'd meet on my way to the afterworld. Third Aunt covered my face with a thin piece of white silk. Fourth Aunt tied colored string around my waist to prevent me from carrying away any of our family's children and around my feet to restrain my body from leaping about should I be tormented by evil spirits on my journey."
That journey does seem strange. These characters cannot bear too much scrutiny; it's never clear, for example, why the poet Wu Ren fails to declare himself to her on their "three nights of love." That the girl should not know him makes sense; she's been protected all her life and forbidden to meet men. But he's her father's chess-playing companion, familiar with the great Chen house, and would know by her dress and deportment that she's his bride-to-be. Also, the behavior of the 9-year-old Tan Ze, who becomes Wu's second wife, is capricious to the point of caricature.
The last line of the first paragraph of the book, though true enough, strikes a discordant note, "It was going to be amazing," and often there's a romantic breathiness to the prose that feels like poor translation:
"Grandmother laughed. The sound was so foreign that it jarred me from my tragic circumstances. I turned to her and her face practically danced with mirth and mischievousness. I had never seen that before, but I was too heartbroken to be hurt by that old woman's amusement at my desperate circumstances."
Finally, there can be inadvertent humor in the fantastical aspects: " 'We asked the netherworld bureaucrats and received one time return-to-earth permits,' Grandmother explained. More pearls filled my heart."
But these objections belong to another tradition than the one See is writing about. She manages, with great dexterity, to make them seem irrelevant. A novel whose protagonist hangs, after death, from a room's rafters and climbs inside a rival's womb to untangle a child's umbilical cord, who dies of self-starvation and communes with the ghosts of her mother and grandmother, who pens a major commentary on a seemingly seditious text and ends up reconciled with both of her successor-wives -- well, suffice it to say that the pleasures of Peony in Love are neither those of logic nor chronology. Years pass in a paragraph; realms are traversed in a line. This reader felt, from time to time, almost literally transported and commends the willing suspension of Western disbelief. There's much here to be savored and a great deal to be learned. ·
Nicholas Delbanco directs the Hopwood Awards Program at the University of Michigan. His most recent novel is "Spring and Fall."