The heroine of Han Suyin's new novel, "Till Morning Comes," has a childlike glance and gold-flecked eyes that unhinge her admirers. Daughter of a Red-hating Texas airplane manufacturer, cub reporter (age 21, Radcliffe), assigned in 1944 to Chungking, Stephanie Ryder early on witnesses a brutal slum-clearing. She lashes out with her fists against the Kuomingtang officer who has kicked in the belly a woman in labor. She rushes the victim and her son, Little Pond, to the hospital, where she admires the skill and compassion of the surgeon, and is attracted to him. Dr. Jen Yong is not a Party member, though he secretly trains doctors and smuggles them to the Communist stronghold in Yenan. Five hundred pages chronicle, over the next 30 years, the love of Stephanie and Yong and the sweet revenge of Little Pond against the officer.
Oddly enough, considering the irritating qualities of the heroine and the outlandish features of the plot (especially as it veers off to her father's elegant retreat in Texas), the many small blunders of fact (such as the date given for Chiang's kidnaping), and numerous passages of florid writing, "Till Morning Comes" is a fascinating novel. Stitched into its fabric in a surprisingly effective manner is the history of the Chinese Revolution and the U.S. response--history told in swift strokes, idiosyncratic detail and a passion to understand revolution's "many beginnings."
The Eurasian Han Suyin, reared in China, served as a midwife in Chengtu. Following medical studies in Europe and no longer welcome in her homeland she worked as a doctor in Hong Kong hospitals. It was in Hong Kong that she experienced the love affair, "a Sargasso churn of emotion," which she distilled into her immensely successful novel, "A Many Splendoured Thing."
Since then she has written more than a dozen books. After 1956 she traveled extensively in China, which she calls her obsession. She has visited hospitals and her family and held hours-long interviews with Premier Chou, whose disciplined and subtle mind, she says, altered her to the marrow.
Reviewers of the Han Suyin volumes on Mao refer to historiographic apple-polishing, hopeful exaggeration and a tendency to overstate and inflate. At the same time her good access to China is credited with yielding "fruits not found on sturdy trees of scholarship." In the fourth volume of her autobiography (1980) it pleases her to report that even as she was blacklisted in America as a Red, wall posters in Shanghai linked her with Pearl Buck as a reactionary and labeled her an American agent.
When Stephanie and Yong marry, he gives her a rufous hen. They live in Shanghai in the gracious compound of Yong's enlightened capitalist parents. Later, in Peking, their home is a gathering place for scientists and journalists. But in the end Stephanie chooses not to stay in China. Homesick and heartsick, having come to hate her husband because of events that surround him--purges and political typhoons--and the exasperations of her job as translator, she returns to the United States on leave in 1957.
There, improbably, she takes over her father's business, initiates a technology think tank and a network of telecommunication enterprises. Yong meanwhile is labeled a rightist and transferred to Manchuria where, when he is not on parade wearing a "stinking rightist" sign, he performs surgery.
Han Suyin's gift is for sketching deftly and sparely a city, a season, a dialect, and for defining through her characters the workings of a people's grapevine, a street-committee session of self-criticism or family confrontation. Her account of the army's entry into Shanghai is fine--round-faced men in clean but rumpled uniforms, not marching but walking, in sneakers, carrying bags of rice rations and guns at the ready.
Han Suyin catches the small constant anxieties, the ritual courtesies, the wry remarks on how it is to live while heaven and earth change place--again and again. She is alive to the paradox by which China celebrates a "Jane Eyre" anniversary while purging 450,000 intellectuals.
Her heroine testifies in Washington that repeats the book's explicit and not-to-be-universally-accepted message. None of this would have happened, not the harshness in China, not the Korean War, not Vietnam, had the United States seized the day in 1945 when John Service was told by Mao and Chou that only America could help to transform China.