Monday, July 28, 2014

The definition of family

A wound that never healed. A promise never to be fulfilled.
That was family.
Julie Wu, The Third Son

In Julie Wu's impressive first novel, The Third Son, the above lines, found late in the story, nicely sums up what family means to her main character, Saburo, and, indeed, to many people the world over.

Based loosely on the early life of her own father, Wu's novel tells about the third son of a family of modest means in Taiwan. The elder sons get the best clothes, the best food and the best education. Saburo gets what's left over, and frequent beatings besides.

The novel opens during an American air raid early in World War II when Taiwan remains under Japanese control. Saburo helps Yoshiko, a girl he has just met, escape. The children, although Chinese, were given Japanese names because of the long Japanese influence. Later the Nationalist Chinese take over the island, but life seems even more oppressive than it was under the Japanese.

Saburo does have one advantage over his older brothers. He is much brighter. He grows up yearning to go to America to study and perhaps even to live, but very few Taiwanese students qualify to attend universities in the United States, and they all have gone to the best schools in Taiwan. What chance does Saburo have when he has been sent to a vocational school? Of course, he does pass the qualifying test, but by then he is married to Yoshiko, who moves in with his family, and they have a son. To go to America means leaving them behind under the influence of his family, including an older brother who desired Yoshiko for himself.

If The Third Son often seems predictable, it nevertheless remains compulsive reading throughout.The suspense lies not in the question of whether Saburo will succeed in America and be able to bring his family over to join him -- we know he will, whatever the obstacles -- but in the questions of how he will do it and whether he will ever be able to gain the acceptance and the respect of his own family. The question this fine novel leaves the reader with is whether Saburo and Yoshiko will be able to change their definition of  family.

No comments:

Post a Comment