"Like all children, I was born into the middle of a story I didn't know, and I was raised to be unknowing, tranquil in its center," observes Hong, the narrator of Lan Samantha Chang's shimmering pearl of a novel, Inheritance. "But glimpses of this story reached my eyes." From those glimpses, Hong pieces together the turbulent, multigenerational drama of her Chinese family in the years before and after the Communist Revolution. In much the way Pasternak personalized the Russian Revolution in Doctor Zhivago, Chang winner of a California Book Award for her first novel, Hunger uses one family's tragedy to illuminate this period of abrupt political and cultural upheaval in China.
The story begins with a suicide that will haunt all that follows. Chanyi, despondent over her inability to produce a son and her husband's taking of a concubine, kills herself, leaving her two daughters in the care of her trusted servant, Hu Mudan. The sisters, though completely different in looks and temperament, share an inseparable bond because of their mother's death. But it is a bond that will be stretched to the breaking point when they both fall in love with the same man.
Junan, the elder sister, marries the soldier Li Ang as a settlement of her father's gambling debts. But although the marriage is arranged, Junan is attracted to Li Ang, and the union begins as a happy one. With Nationalist forces fighting to rid China of its Japanese invaders, Li Ang is often away, but Junan does manage to conceive two children, both daughters. Unlike her mother, though, Junan does not allow her disappointment over not bearing a son drive her to the brink of despair. Instead, this steel-willed young woman understands that power lies in money and property, and she takes control of the family's destiny through the sheer force of her personality.
When Li Ang is posted to Chongqing, Junan cannot accompany him because her second pregnancy makes wartime travel impossible. So when she begins to suspect the danger of losing her husband to another woman, Junan sends her sister, Yinan, to run his household. This proves a fateful decision, for Yinan and Li Ang soon become lovers. Yinan, a brooding, poetic girl, is guilt-stricken by her actions, and she runs off. But while Junan is willing to forgive her sister, irreparable damage has been done to the family.
With the Japanese expelled from China, the conflict shifts to the contest between the Nationalists and the Communists for control of the country. Junan has amassed enough wealth to get the family to Taiwan, but she refuses to bring along Yinan or the son that she has borne. Li Ang is forced to choose between the two sisters.
It is Hong, the elder daughter of Junan and Li Ang, who tries to make sense of this story from the distance of years. Rebellious and strong-willed like her mother, she defies social convention, falling in love with the illegitimate son of the servant Hu Mudan, and bearing a daughter out of wedlock. Her fractious relationship with her mother is emotionally crippling, but she ultimately defies the aging woman and begins to unearth the unspoken truths about the family history. As she slowly rebuilds the story, Hong discovers not only the facts, but their enduring emotional implications as well.
Lan Samantha Chang, who is one generation further removed than Hong from the history that provides the backdrop for Inheritance, has said that the novel is not autobiographical, but its telling is. Like Hong, Chang found the details for her story by returning to a China that no longer exists, and seeing this vanishing time through the eyes of a generation that is fast disappearing. Her novel sprawls across a broad canvas of history, yet it is constructed from exquisite intimacies. Inheritance is elegiac and haunting, written with subtlety and grace, and powered as much by what is left unsaid as by what is told. Robert Weibezahl's book, A Second Helping of Murder, has been nominated for the Macavity Award.