Book Review: World and Town


Gish Jen is a past master at the creation of immigrant literature. Her novels include Mona in the Promised Land, Typical American and The Love Wife, all explorations of blending cultures, in this instance Asian-American. The hybrid created is never seamless, always complicated--and it is in the interstices that her writing shines.

Set in the Vermont town of Riverlake, this novel is, once again, an examination of a cultural collision that seems almost insurmountable because of the disparate backgrounds of all involved. Hattie Kong, Chinese-American descendant of Confucius, retreats to Riverlake after the deaths from cancer of her husband and her best friend in rapid succession. With her three dogs, she settles down to grieve. She joins a walking club comprised of several women of different persuasions; one of them, Ginny, is a born-again Christian, and her influence will have an impact on everyone.

A Cambodian family moves into a derelict trailer down the hill from Hattie: mother and father; teen-age son, Sarun; daughter Sophy (pronounced SoPEE, please); and infant son, Gift. Hattie, out of loneliness and compassion for their situation, offers friendship, cookies, English lessons, Chinese lessons, rides here and there--whatever they need. At first, she is rebuffed, but eventually a wary connection is forged.

Jen explores the realities of our times through these people: What does 9/11 mean to Cambodians who have lost everything, witnessed horrors beyond imagining and are struggling to find a new identity in a strange land? Ginny's church preys upon Sophy's guilt for once conceiving a child, twists her away from Hattie and makes her complicit in an unlawful act. Sarun continues to hang out with his gang, precipitating a showdown with his father that has poignant and far-reaching consequences.

Into this rich concoction walks scientist Carter Hatch, Hattie's former lover. They have their own particular healing to go through. Carter, always the problem-solver, keeps a chain store from moving into town but cannot prevent the cell phone tower from being built. It's all a question of wins and losses, science or faith, old ways or new, rage or forgiveness. Each is given free range as Jen leads the reader to a discovery of what our "world" really is, what family means and how community is formed.--Valerie Ryan

Shelf Talker: Gish Jen, specialist in immigrant literature, once again illuminates the difficulties and solutions of blending cultures.


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