Beth Wolfensberger Singer reviews 'Hunger' by Lan Samantha Chang

By Beth Wolfensberger Singer
Published November 18, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Lan Samantha Chang's first collection of fiction -- a novella and five stories -- is titled "Hunger," but there isn't much dining in it. Nor do its plots depend on eating disorders or sexual cravings. Rather, it's the characters who get chewed on and torn at, pushed into the maw of the past by the restless fingers of the present.

In the mesmerizing, gorgeously unrolling title novella, the regrets of a Taiwan-born woman in America become literally eternal. The evening Min first spies the pale Chinese violinist who will be her husband, she senses the sorrow her life will hold. Her mother had told her of the Chinese myth that every man and woman "was joined at birth to their mate by an invisible, enchanted thread." She had also spoken of a kind of fate called yuanfen: "that apportionment of love which is destined for you in this world." Min's yaunfen proves greatly insufficient. Her thread turns from enchanted to constricting as her husband brutally trains their youngest daughter to be the successful American violinist he missed becoming himself.

Like several other Chinese-American characters in the book, Min and her husband have made a bargain with themselves to dismiss their Chinese lives in order to survive in America. "How will we make the space in our minds for everything we'll need to learn here?" asks a wife in one of the stories. "We will forget," her husband answers. But they are deeply, almost unconsciously homesick, and American life becomes like an afterlife for them. Paralyzed by placelessness and an inability to communicate, they can still focus with burdensome intensity on the progress of their children. Not surprisingly, the children flee that laserlike love as determinedly as their parents fled from China. And the older generation, left alone, is visited by increasingly vivid memories of their homeland. Everyone seems to be haunted.

Chang arranges and rearranges certain elements in these stories: the gifted and nearly suffocated child leaving home, the ambitious father dead of a stroke or heart failure, the outwardly silent mother wondering where she went wrong. Spirits of parents come to grown children in dreams. Two of the stories read like ancient folk tales. Throughout, Chang displays a breathtaking talent for description -- music as "a great rope of silk, smooth and shimmering," and the force of emotions in an argument that "you could see shapes in, colors like black-purple and scarlet and venomous yellow-green."

Having the novella appear first, however, imbalances the book -- it is simply richer than the other stories. Its most formidable asset is the character of Min -- a wife and mother who keenly observes everything, but has had no one with whom to share her thoughts. After spending 103 pages with Min, it's difficult not to find that the voices of other characters ring hollow in comparison.

"I began to understand," Min reflects at one point, "that to love another was to be custodian of that person's decline -- to know this fate, hold onto it and live." This collection is, mostly, about that persistent grasp in the face of things subtracted, about custodians, whose work is solitary, common and, here, beautifully and sadly portrayed.

Beth Wolfensberger Singer

Beth Wolfensberger Singer is a freelance writer living in Boston.

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