By Janie Chang. Harpercollins Canada, 352 pp, softcover
Three Souls, the debut novel by Vancouver’s Janie Chang, will inevitably draw comparison to the work of Amy Tan and Lisa See. Each author explores the fates of fictional Chinese women against period backdrops, delving into the strictures of time and tradition, but cursory parallels distract from their respective merits as storytellers.
On these pages, Chang traces Song Leiyin—daughter, wife, mother, apparition—and revisits the events preceding her early demise. Set amid the Nationalist and Communist conflict in mid-20th century China, the book offers a nuanced look at how decisions and actions cultivate an individual’s history.
The plot opens with the winsome heroine suspended in an “inadequate spirit world”, accompanied by her yang soul, her yin soul, and her hun soul; the Taoist tenet that humans bear multiple souls informs much of the premise here, though the treatment hinders this otherwise reasonable first effort.
Barred from the afterlife for an unspecified wrong, Leiyin surveys her earthly days to expose the grievance, and reveals the roles that war and personal freedom played in dismantling her family. Beginning in Changchow, in 1928, Chang illustrates Leiyin’s pampered youth, when dreams of a teaching career occupied her mind, and Yen Hanchin, a poet with leftist allegiances, captivated her heart. This attraction produces far-reaching consequences that trammel the protagonist’s adulthood in Pinghu.
Built on the exchange between Leiyin’s mortal past and spectral present, the novel hiccups in combining the two threads. Writing about the initial tedium of the heroine’s arranged marriage and subsequent foray into motherhood, the author displays sympathy and stirring images. “The days that once ran through my fingers as predictably as prayer beads,” Leiyin reflects, “now flew by like abacus counters beneath a shopkeeper’s nimble fingers.”
Nevertheless, the brief interruptions featuring the protagonist and her idling souls quickly grow tiresome. As her yin soul inanely observes, “She wouldn’t be the first person to confuse lust with love.”
In a clichéd twist, Leiyin averts the destinies of a chosen few from beyond the grave. It is to the author’s credit that this potentially bathetic gesture enhances the narrative, and the grander tale of reparation, hindsight, and female identity.