Amy Tan's new book, The Bonesetter's Daughter, is full of mystery, suspense, superstition and magic. It is a novel as layered as the bone-filled caves outside Peking, and the clues are as shrouded in dust and history as any ancient archaeological dig. Ruth Liu is a writer sandwiched between the man she lives with, his daughters and her aging mother. She is also in a race to discover the true story of her mother, LuLing Liu Young, before Alzheimer's disease masks her mother's memories completely. She lives with her boyfriend and his two daughters, ghostwrites self-help books, and manages all the details of her mother's life. She is so busy she almost misses the signs of dementia her mother displays: paranoia, forgetfulness, confusion, anger and depression.
But it is easy to see why Ruth might miss these signs. Her mother has been a paranoid, superstitious, angry woman all her life, convinced that she is living under a curse caused by the suicide and lack of burial of her beloved mute and disfigured nursemaid, Precious Auntie. This character is at the heart of Tan's novel. Who is Precious Auntie? What is her true story?Ruth believes the answers are in a document, written in perfect Chinese calligraphy by LuLing, that Ruth finds in her mother's house. She does not have the skill or time to translate each of the painstaking characters and hires someone else to sift through the document, much as she is hired to work on other authors' words. The gentleman she hires presents Ruth with the story, told in the words of LuLing and Precious Auntie. The many accounts overlap, contradict and challenge each other, and it is the reader, through Ruth, who has the job of excavating the truth.
Precious Auntie is the daughter of a bonesetter, an important medical profession in her part of China. Part orthopedist and part herb doctor, the bonesetter treats patients with the ground-up bones found in the caves around the village of Immortal Heart. These bones are eventually identified by scientists as "Peking Man," the remains of early humans who lived half a million years ago. Peking Man turns out to be a composite of many bones from many humans, just as the story Ruth so desperately wants to understand is a composite of all the stories told to Ruth through family lore and the written tale from LuLing.
There are many parts to this mystery: Who is LuLing's real mother? What is her name? Why was Precious Aunt's face so horribly disfigured? What stories are lies, told to protect someone else? What happened to Peking Man? Superstitions, curses, oracles, ghosts and spirits all are part of the world Tan spins for us, a world that eventually brings us back to the future and to the superstitions that guide all of us, whether we live in the year 2001 or 801.
The Bonesetter's Daughter is a stirring reminder of the power of love, secrets and family stories. Family histories, even when they have been reinvented and rearranged, have the power to explain, inform and allow forgiveness. As we age and face our own mortality, we might remember the wise words of Precious Auntie, "After all . . . what is the past but what we choose to remember."
Robin Smith is a teacher in Nashville.