I’ve finished reading The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds by Selina Siak Chin Yoke. As I’ve said previously here, this paperback comprises 464 pages including several informational sections like a glossary and a word about the language used in the story. It’s consists of 5 parts plus a prologue and epilogue, more on that in a minute. The story is written in first person past tense, which is suitable for someone writing a memoir-esque work of fiction. In fact, the author uses a distinctly nonfiction technique throughout her story.
If you’re looking to virtually experience Asian culture, in this case Malay and Chinese, I’d highly recommend this story. Not only the language used, the expressions used, but also the décor, the clothing, the food, the religious rituals and rites. All is woven into a beautiful tapestry of life and people in Malay.
But more than just a fictionalized cultural study, the story explores the tensions between tradition and modernizing. Of following the dictates and norms of how one is raised to act and behave, as opposed to what the next generation adapts to. Especially, in this case, the Western influences on the traditions and expectations of the Asian cultures. I was reminded of the tension between my mother and myself “merely” because of the age difference, not a cultural difference. Mom was 42 when I was born, 60 when I graduated high school. Expectations had most definitely shifted by then!
So let’s take a quick look at the structure of the novel. Like I said before, the story proper is divided into a prologue, 5 parts, and an epilogue. Each section is set in a different span of time, too. I think it’s interesting to see what is emphasized within those sections of the story. If we look at page count by section we’ll find the following:
Prologue 1938 – pages 1-4 = 4 pages
Part I: My Early Years 1878-1898 – pages 5-61 = 57 pages
Part II: The Hand of Fate 1899-1910 – pages 63-146 = 84 pages
Part III: Struggle 1910 – August 1921 – pages 147-281 = 135 pages
Part IV: Uncharted Territory September 1921-1930 – pages 283-360 = 78 pages
Part V: The Twilight Years 1931 – 8 December 1941 – pages 361-452 = 92 pages
Epilogue [December 1941] – pages 453-455 = 3 pages
So my first glance at these divisions makes me wonder about the relative importance of each of them. Obviously, we can discount the short prologue and epilogues, not solely because they are short. But, having read the book, I can tell you the prologue introduces what the main parts are going to discuss and why, while the epilogue wraps up what happens after the main story ends. Both have their functions, and provide needed information for the reader to fully enjoy the story. They don’t need to be long to accomplish their mission.
Despite the fact Part I: The Early Years is setting up the foundation which the main character, Chye Hoon, must grow from but never quite outgrows throughout her life, is the shortest of the parts. I suppose I understand that, because just like in life, our childhood is the shortest phase of our existence and yet it continues to impact the rest of our long lives. It took me many decades to overcome my mother telling me to sit on a chair and not move! I think I took her far too literally…
By contrast, the longest section is Part III: Struggle. It’s also the central section of the novel and I think is the heart of the story. This part shows the kind of mettle Chye Hoon possesses through some very difficult times in her life. Her efforts on behalf of her family bring to mind the kinds of sacrifices my own father endured as a child but then also turned around and had to rely upon as an adult. Not the same exact difficulties, but I can see the same determination to do whatever necessary to support the family in both of their actions.
Another aspect of the structure I found interesting is the use of flashbacks as integral to the telling of the story. In this book, the author frequently begins a scene with Chye Hoon stating a major or surprising happening followed by how it came about. Essentially, the character tells a story within the story up to and beyond the initial event that begun the scene. This structure emphasizes the sense of memoir or autobiography in the book. A rather interesting crossover of technique from a nonfiction genre to a fiction one.
I wonder if that technique is unique to this author or is it one employed by Asian storytellers in general. I am not a storyteller (oral) but from the little experience I’ve had around them they well might use this technique more than I’d realized. Either way, it’s one to stick in my toolbox!
So, next up on my Historical Fiction Around the World tour is one recommended to me just last week while I was at the IBPA PubU Conference in Orlando. I’m going to read Nguyễn Phan Qué Mai’s The Mountains Sing. This author is a Vietnamese poet and this is her first novel though she has written several other books. I hear it’s excellent so stay tuned!
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