Saturday 14 July 2018

Neo-Victorian Voices: Snow Flower and The Secret Fan, Lisa See (2005)

While reading most of the novels in my Neo-Victorian Voices series I’ve felt like I’m returning to a familiar world. Even if the authors of the twenty-first century have different sensibilities and interests than those of the nineteenth, including lesbian liaisons, magical circuses and mechanical octopuses against their Victorian backdrops, there is much that is the same—familiar social structures, story stakes, etiquette.

But in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), Lisa See transported me to a new world, the Hunan Province in mid-nineteenth-century China. This is a culture with gender segregation more absolute than in your typical Victorian marriage plot, a culture in which young girls undergo excruciating (and vividly described) footbinding to render them attractive husbands they won’t see until their wedding nights, where women communicate the stories of their lives in a secret language, nu shu, before their words are burned upon their deaths.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005)
The novel is the story of Lily and the most meaningful relationship of her life. This relationship isn’t with her husband, who might as well be from a different planet, but with her ‘old same’ or laotong, Snow Flower, a girl from a more prestigious family who share’s Lily’s birth year and month, if not her fate.

See does an incredible job of bringing Lily to life through prose that maintains the pretence that it could have been translated. She explores the cruelties of her characters’ lives without turning them into mouthpieces for contemporary Western ideals. And, through an entirely first person narrative, she prompts us to understand Lily more clearly than she does herself, while maintaining our empathy for her, bringing the story of a passionate friendship to its agonising and inevitable conclusion.

Lisa See (1955-)
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is historical fiction at its best—informative and transporting, even while timeless in its recognisable humanity.

Which novel would you like to see the Secret Victorianist read next as part of the Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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