WORLD AND TOWN
By Gish Jen
Knopf, $26.95 400 pages
As its title implies, “World and Town” links the immediate with the long-term by tying the lives of people
in the little New England community of Riverlake to those who live - or lived - in distant, seemingly unconnected, places.
The term is particularly long in Hattie Kong’s case. She is a descendent of Confucius (Knogzu in Chinese), and Gish Jen’s novel opens with her sitting in the Kong family cemetery, where Confucius and subsequent generations of her ancestors are buried. Hattie is reassured by the graves because they suggest “a world with membership, it seemed, and eternal order.” But she is not destined to live in China, and her bones won’t rest with her ancestors. Instead, threatened by the imminent Japanese invasion, her parents send her to her mother’s farming family in Iowa. From there, she moves on to a promising career as a research biologist.
After the graveyard scene, we next meet Hattie as a 68-year-old retiree. Two years earlier, her husband and best friend died of cancer at virtually the same time. She is still devastated by their deaths. Her son works abroad, so her main emotional support comes from her dogs and the women in her walking group. Things change when a local church provides a trailer for the Chhung family next door to Hattie’s house. The Chhungs are Cambodian survivors of Pol Pot’s regime. Riven with memories of what they suffered, they survive on what Mum earns by cleaning and what Sarun brings in from various nefarious ventures.
Sarun has been a gang member. The move to the country is supposed to help him reform. But with little to do except dig an enormous hole with his father, he is clearly at risk of more trouble. Hattie gives them a wheelbarrow and batches of cookies. Gradually, she gets to know the Chhungs’ daughter, Sophy, who should be in school but spends her days minding the baby. Hattie and Sophy bond, but then Ginny, one of the women from the walking group, introduces Sophy to her fundamentalist church, and Sophy draws away from Hattie.
Ginny’s husband, Everett, is Riverlake’s Mr. Good Guy. He’s the one who digs out Hattie’s driveway after every snowstorm. He’s been a devoted husband for 37 years; nonetheless, Ginny kicks him out of their house. Why? Everett - and everyone else in Riverlake — is outraged. Can the rift be healed?
Hattie and her former lover, Carter, who has just moved to Riverlake, try to help, but as Gish Jen takes the reader back to the days when Everett and Ginny were high school sweethearts and then through the years of their marriage, it becomes clear that their lives were derailed in ways that Hattie and Carter can never know. Ginny and Everett are known as members of their community, but ultimately unknowable, even to each other, in their privacy of their own thoughts. Like the Chhungs, they are among the walking wounded.
As is Hattie. Much of “World and Town” is told from inside her head, which is an interesting place to be. She muses over her short-circuited research career; revisits her life in Carter’s lab; remembers the high-school students she taught; pines for her husband, Joe, and her smart and witty colleague Lee, dead of breast cancer; wonders what really happened to her parents after she left for Iowa; e-mails Chinese relatives who think bad luck will be averted if she returns her parents’ bones to the family graveyard; thinks of her mother’s life as a missionary; thinks about her dogs, her paintings of bamboo, the lake outside her window and that ever-deepening hole Mr. Chhung is digging for himself.
She also thinks about physiology, especially the physiology of sight, which was her research field and becomes a central metaphor in this novel. What we see is not necessarily what is out there, but what our brains make of the multitude of inputs to the eye. Our brains are editors, deleting some things, sharpening the focus on others so we can make sense of our surroundings. Hattie is good at seeing because her brain is well-equipped, stored with knowledge, capable of dealing with ambiguity and capable, too, of rethinking and reformulating old ideas. For readers, as for her neighbors, Hattie is a wonderful companion.
“World and Town” is Gish Jen’s fourth novel, and like her earlier work, it can be said to explore the immigrant experience, both as a set of practical and emotional issues faced by so many Americans, but also as emblematic for the sense of apartness that is part of human consciousness. It is a book of immense riches. It is packed with information - about the eye, about Chinese painting, about Cambodia.
It is rich with ideas about the ways people adapt or fail to, about how lives are built and what can tear them apart, about what people believe and whether their beliefs undermine them or enable them to prosper. It evokes the seasons, New England town meetings, the lives of teens, the women who meet for coffee, the way people turn up apparently out of the blue and how they are missed when they die. Most importantly, this is a beautifully written novel of wit and insight and great generosity. Gish Jen’s novels do not come along often, so this is not one to miss.
Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.