Three Souls by Janie Chang

Three Souls - Janie Chang

You’re still here because in life you were responsible for a great wrong.

Set amidst the political turmoil and upheaval of China in the 1930s, with Chiang Kai-Shek and his Nationalist party on one side and the Communist Party of China on the other; with Westerners holding China ransom over opium and the impending arrival of the Japanese and their bombs – you get this story, of Song Leiyin, third daughter of a prominent family, who grew up in the seclusion of the Song family home. For some mysterious reason she is now dead, but her soul remained on earth because, as she was told:

You must understand the damage you did. Then you must make amends to balance the ledger. Only then can we ascend together to the true afterlife.

Leiyin was an adaptable character, but she adapted because she had little choice. She was also very selfish, but we could be selfish when we’re in love. And Leiyin was in love; she loved someone she could never marry, because her family supported the Nationalists. The handsome Hanchin, on the other hand, was a leftwing poet and translator, supporter of communism ideologies. But Leiyin was no Anna Karenina, and Three Souls is no passionate love story – she had the option, to run away and live the hard life, or to marry the man her father chose for her.

I nearly DNF-ed at this point because I’m used to characters that would choose the former option, and it just didn’t feel right in this case – it did not fit her characterisation. I didn’t think Leiyin had it in her – spoilt youngest daughter of a rich family, and while character development was possible (and did happen, to another character), I was glad for her sake that she took the other option. And I notice she did not wonder – much - about the road not taken.

Two stars, because the story was just alright. Readable, but not especially entertaining … a bit dull, like Pinghu, the town her father sent her to. The rural hometown of the family he arranged her marriage with. An oasis in the middle of war.

All at once it came to me that Pinghu had given me the serenity of ordinary days, a quiet pond set in the chaotic landscape that was China. For as long as it could hold back the inevitable intrusion of war, I would cherish its simple pleasures.

I’m the sort who prefers to read about characters in the thick of the action; through dangers untold, and hardships unnumbered (quoting The Labyrinth 1986 film); which in this case would follow Leiyin’s friend Nanmei, whom she fell out with when the latter went to college and Leiyin was married off instead.

How wonderful, my yin soul says. To be in love with your husband before the wedding.

Reading about arranged marriages made me sad. It was the norm in those days, when people marry for wealth and political reasons, for connections than for love. Both Leiyin’s sisters suffered this fate, and one of them found happiness while the other did not – reflecting two common outcomes of such unions.

This town, this marriage, they were not what I had imagined for myself, I tell them. But I had a husband who loved me with great devotion and a daughter we both adored. It was enough. I was content.

And of course, this lovely moment was the calm before the storm. Leiyin, as you would recall, is dead of mysterious reasons, and she would have to review her life (70% of the book) and then figure out how to fix this "great wrong" (the remaining 30%) and my pet peeve was the way the epilogue ended.

Off-screen. The kind of ending whereby the narrator tells you what will happen. It doesn’t get shown to you – and being sceptical, like I am – I don’t have Leiyin’s conviction that she will ascend to the afterlife “tomorrow”. If the events turn out differently, if she was wrong, it would be horrible. She’d be doomed to stay on as a hungry ghost, roaming about without her souls, with no rest and no purpose.

(show spoiler)

Yeah, I prefer book endings all wrapped up nicely in a bow. There’s no accounting for tastes, after all.