The Year She Left Us is the story of the Kong women of the San Francisco Bay Area. Four women, each with their own story to tell, with their own secrets to conceal.
We begin with the adoption of Ari from an orphanage in China. Charlie is her adoptive mother, and tries her best to raise her, as a single mother. But as Ari grows up and becomes an angry, sullen teenager, Charlie wrings her hands in despair and pretty much loses any confidence in being a mother. Les is Charlie’s sister, far more strong-willed and aggressive, more willing to make decisions and act on things than her sister.
Gran is the prickly pear of the family, the stern, standing-tall-never-slouching kind of older woman, proud of her family’s privileged background – her father was a doctor in Shanghai and treated the rich and important; she points out to Ari that they are “not Chinatown Chinese” and speak Mandarin instead of Cantonese. She’s got a secret of her own, something about her past in China that even her children don’t know about.
Then there is Ari, a bit of an enigma despite the first-person narrative on her part. She wants to know what happened to her, why she was abandoned at a store in China. And it all torments her so much that she does something rather shocking when she’s in China (she’s working with a family friend who organises tours of the orphanages), a physical kind of damage behind which lies all kinds of emotional hurt. No one besides her good friend AJ (a fellow adoptee – they call themselves the Whackadoodles, from Western-Adopted Chinese Daughters or WACD) knows the truth and it’s hurting everyone, especially Ari herself.
It’s a rather unusual adoption story. The adoptive mother is Chinese-American, whereas most adoptive families of Chinese girls tend to be white (Ari is the only Whackadoodle to be adopted by a Chinese family). And it’s a family which is very solidly female, matriarchal. Both Les and Charlie are single, although there are hints of relationships past and present, and their father died some years ago. Les talks about the three Kong women being like the Three Fates. Clotho, spinning the thread of life, is Charlie. Lachesis (Gran) measures the thread, deciding how long a life should be led. Atropos wields the power to cut the thread, and Les is the one who makes the big decisions in the family: “Charlie was too tender and Gran too abrupt”.
And Ari? Ari is the one character I struggled to like. Her youth, her brashness and thoughtlessness. There was some vulnerability, her feeling of abandonment, her struggle to find her own identity. But she felt so very closed off, a big ‘keep out’ sign over her head, I couldn’t feel for her like I wanted to.
One thing that tickled me was the fact that the Kong sisters were very American. They barely spoke Mandarin and lived far from Chinatown, but since they were ethnically Chinese everyone assumed they did – Les, for instance, was often asked to escort delegations from China around on the assumption that they had a common language.
“Les would ok sooner call Reynold Low and Reverend Stanley her ‘community’ than walk through the streets of Chinatown on Autumn Moon Festival Day.”
That kind of resonated with me. I am Chinese by way of Singapore and currently living in the SF Bay Area too. And where I live, it is a largely Asian community (we didn’t move there with that in mind though) as many communities in the area seem to be these days. There are Asian supermarkets close by, plenty of Asian restaurants (especially Indian restaurants). My son’s preschool classmates are mostly Asian, as are our neighbours. And as we’ve gotten to know some of our neighbours over the years, whether it’s the quick chitchat as I push the baby in the stroller, I’ve realised that we are the odd ducks in the neighbourhood. Our kids are being brought up speaking English as a first language. Our next-door neighbours are Taiwanese but have been here since they were very young children, yet they speak Mandarin at home. One of our neighbours is a Russian-Chinese couple, and their younger son is being looked after by his Russian grandmother. And they make it a point to only speak Russian and Mandarin to the kids at home. Our friends too speak Cantonese and Mandarin to their kids. We seem to be the only ones who don’t push our ‘mother tongue’.
Growing up in Singapore, I was made to learn Mandarin as a second language. From the ages of 7 (Primary 1) all the way to 17 (what we call ‘junior college’), there were regular Chinese classes. But we always spoke English as home (my parents never really learnt Mandarin in school – it was quite a different time then). I do still remember quite a bit of Mandarin, I listen to songs, I read to my kids. But it is not our main language of communication. And I often worry that if we return to Singapore, that they will never be able to catch up in Chinese class. So I’ve been researching Chinese schools in our area – there are weekend Chinese classes in private schools, and one of the public elementary schools even has a Mandarin immersion programme that starts from kindergarten. But so far, I have yet to see anything that would suit a three-year-old, besides bilingual daycare, which is not something I’m looking for. I guess I’ll just have to keep working on trying to speak more Mandarin on my own part for now.
Ok back to the book. The Year She Left Us was a moving story, filled with some wonderfully strong women. It offers an interesting insight into international adoption and how it can affect not just the child in question but her family. A fresh and rather spunky story.
Thanks to the power of words and the presence of my very feeble mind when it comes to anything with chocolate, The Year She Left Us made me make a brownie. Rereading those passages again, I realise that the brownie wasn’t described or anything, it is simply, a brownie that is eaten, that quintessentially American treat, chocolatey, sweet, a little bit fudgy or cakey, depending on how you like it. I prefer mine cold, straight from the fridge, and made using this recipe from Aussie chef Bill Granger’s Bill’s Food, one of my favourite cookbooks.
370g (1 1/2 cups) caster (superfine) sugar
80g (2/3 cup) cocoa powder
60g (1/2 cup) plain (all-purpose) flour
1 tsp baking powder
4 eggs, beaten
250g (9oz) unsalted butter, melted
2 tsp vanilla extract
200g (7oz) chocolate buttons (i used semi-sweet chocolate chips)
Preheat oven to 160˚C (315˚F/gas 2-3). Stir the sugar, cocoa powder, flour and baking powder together in a bowl. Add the eggs, melted butter and vanilla and mix until combined. Mix in the chocolate buttons. pour into a lined 9 inch (22cm) square tin and bake for 40 to 45 minutes.
And that’s it! You just have to be patient and wait. Some of those chocolate chips melt a little, others don’t, so you get a nice mix of a little fudgy and a little bit cakey with some unmelted chocolate chips in the middle of it all. Tastes great straight from the fridge or warmed in the microwave and served with ice-cream (I’m partial to strawberry).
Kathryn Ma is the author of the story collection All That Work and Still No Boys, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award. The book was named a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Discoveries Book. She is also the recipient of the David Nathan Meyerson Prize for Fiction. Before becoming a writer, Ma was a partner in a California law firm. She lives with her family in San Francisco. This is her first novel.
I received a copy of this book from its publisher and TLC Book Tours
Tuesday, May 13th: Books in the City
Thursday, May 22nd: A Bookish Way of Life
Tuesday, May 27th: River City Reading
Wednesday, May 28th: A Patchwork of Books
Monday, June 2nd: Drey’s Library
Tuesday, June 3rd: BookNAround
Monday, June 9th: BoundbyWords
Tuesday, June 10th: red headed book child
Wednesday, June 11th: Svetlana’s Reads and Views
Thursday, June 12th: Book-alicious Mama
Friday, June 13th: From the TBR Pile
Friday, June 13th: Turn the Page