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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : Revealing the True Voices Underneath the Suffering : THE HUNDRED SECRET SENSES by Amy Tan ; Putnam; $24.95, 358 pages

October 30, 1995|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most novelists find a ready-made genre to work in. Amy Tan is one of the few to create her own. Not Chinese American fiction as such, but a distinctive way of exploring the fault lines where two ways of thinking and living grind against each other like continental plates, sending up comic jets of steam and rumbling with ominous tremors.

The top plate, represented by Tan's younger characters, is American. It's takeout food, egalitarian marriage, San Francisco 49er caps, university educations, mild bohemianism, looser family ties, upscale condos, divorce. It's a skeptical, rationalistic outlook, a belief that the only significant history began when we were born.

The bottom plate, the Chinese one, can lie quietly for years, hidden by the older characters' fractured English and their sometimes amusing attempts to adjust to the New World. Then-- crack! --we hear their true voices, decades fall away like slabs of rock and hitherto unimagined depths of suffering and devotion gape at our feet.

Tan's first novel, "The Joy Luck Club," surprised and delighted readers with the new genre already formed. "The Hundred Secret Senses" shows that Tan's storytelling skills are as intact as ever. It's surely the feel-good ghost story of the year. But the fact that it is a ghost story--that it relies at least as much on private mythology as on shared experience--hints that her original inspiration may be flagging.

The narrator on the American side of the tectonic divide is Olivia Yee Laguni Bishop. Her Chinese father has died. Her Caucasian mother has good-naturedly neglected her. Her husband and business partner, Simon, is haunted by memories of a college girlfriend who was killed in an avalanche. After 17 years of being a stand-in--or so she feels--Olivia is divorcing him.

The Chinese viewpoint belongs to Olivia's half sister, Kwan, who arrives in San Francisco at age 18 and confides to Olivia, then 6, that she has the ability to see "yin people"--ghosts. Olivia sees them too, for a while. She reveals Kwan's secret, with dire consequences: Kwan is put in a mental hospital and given shock treatments.

More than 30 years later, Kwan is still the only person who offers Olivia the wholehearted love she craves. Out of guilt, Olivia pretends to share Kwan's superstitions and listens to her "wacky" tales about a former life during the 1860s Taiping Rebellion, which ended, she says, when Manchu soldiers killed her and her closest friend, a young American woman missionary.

Kwan insists that Olivia and Simon are fated to stay together. She gets them to accompany her to her home village in China, where spooky things start happening.

In "The Hundred Secret Senses," the two-plate system slides and buckles with a practiced smoothness. Kwan is a wonderful comic character. Olivia and Simon, dating at UC Berkeley, working in public relations, circling each other warily in China, provide wry and amusing counterpoint.

But it used to be, in an Amy Tan novel, that the Chinese level of reality was "realer" than the American. What erupted from history's depths was war, famine, cruelty, anguish, hope, a bracing sense of being in touch with life's elemental facts. Here the Chinese level is one of indulgent fantasy--an assertion that "the world is not a place but the vastness of the soul," that "the soul is nothing more than love, limitless, endless," and that believing in ghosts is a way of "believing that love never dies." Not that many readers will mind.

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