Amy Tan’s The Hundred Secret Senses is a ghost story, a history, and a testament to the power of hope and love. This is only my second Amy Tan novel, but I must say, I am riveted by her storytelling. In this novel, as with The Kitchen God’s Wife, Tan manages to tell stories of the past that have a direct relationship to the present. This time, Tan reaches 100+ years into the past, to 1865, as she tells the story of Nunumu, the peasant girl whose unwavering loyalty to an American missionary woman leads to suffering and death for both. This is not a spoiler, but what is astounding is that we learn this story from Nunumu in the 1990s, when she has been reborn as Kwan, an immigrant to San Francisco who has “yin eyes” and an American half-sister with a lot of suspicions and little tolerance for Kwan.
Olivia and Kwan share a father, something Olivia learned in her childhood when her father, a Chinese immigrant who married an American woman, died and revealed Kwan’s existence on his death bed. Olivia has always found her older sister annoying and embarrassing, and she often behaves cruelly toward Kwan. This is especially evident when Kwan reveals to Olivia that she has “yin eyes,” meaning she can see and communicate with spirits. Despite her little sister’s harsh behavior, Kwan never ceases to love and praise Olivia, and she makes a point of speaking with her in Chinese, something that will help Olivia later in life.
As the sisters become adults, their paths diverge but they do not fully separate. Kwan, always upbeat, works and builds a family of her own while maintaining contact with Olivia unflaggingly. Olivia attends university and becomes a successful photographer. She is very good at capturing what the eye can see in the physical world and remains skeptical of Kwan’s supposed contact with the spiritual world. Yet, when Kwan’s “yin eyes” can help her secure the love of Simon, Olivia decides to put her skepticism aside. Simon, her college love, had a past love named Elza who died suddenly and tragically. Olivia feels like she is in competition with Elza’s ghost, and while she does not believe in spirits, she is willing to use Kwan’s gift to get Simon over Elza. The two do marry, but much as she doesn’t like to admit it, Olivia is still haunted by the ghosts of Simon’s past and her own insecurity.
As we shoot forward in time, we learn that Simon and Olivia’s marriage is on rocks and that Kwan is sure that these two are meant to be together. When the three of them take a trip to China together, all of the stories — Nunumu’s, Kwan’s, Simon and Olivia’s — will come to a kind of resolution. As far as I’m concerned, the story of Kwan/Nunumu is the most interesting and tragic, and the action in China is the best part of the story. Through these characters, Tan gives her readers a short history of Imperialist intervention in China and the tragedy that it visited upon native people.
Ultimately, The Hundred Secret Senses is about undying love, loyalty and promises kept, even when the object of those promises is so self-absorbed that they cannot see the sacrifices of others until it is too late. Love is funny like that.