In her most recent book, “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane,” Lisa See weaves worlds apart — from East and Vest — in a story about a family torn apart and shaped by globalization in China.
The best-selling author of “Snow Flower and The Secret Fan” and “China Dolls,” Ms. See is known for writing historical fiction about the Chinese female experience. However in her new novel, Ms. See diverges from writing about the Han, China’s ethnic majority. Here, she focuses on a Chinese ethnic minority, the Akha.
Ms. See gradually gives information about the Akha’s culture, not overwhelming the reader with information. However, the beginning is most heavy with rituals, beliefs and taboos that the narrator, Li-yan reveals.
With first-person narration, Li-yan gives a personal touch to the unique Akha lifestyle. Li-yan functions as one stuck between following tradition and breaking from it to embrace modernism and individualism.
This conflict is heightened when Li-yan falls in love with San-pa, and their love is doomed from the beginning. San-pa is born on Tiger Day, while she is born on Pig Day, so her parents see them as an incompatible match. But their love overpowers tradition and taboo, resulting in Li-yan’s pregnancy. However, hardships and San-pa’s indefinite return to Spring Well follow.
The most difficult hardship Li-yan must endure is giving up her child at an orphanage and enduring the pain of their separation. After San-pa returns and they get married, she returns to the orphanage to get her back, but it is too late. Yan-yeh has been adopted by an American couple from Southern California, and they rename her Haley.
Ms. See portrays Haley through epistolary form. Some chapters include a letter from her natal doctor and one is from Constance, Haley’s mother, written to Haley’s grandmother. The non-traditional form shows the struggles of the adoption process, which mostly stems from the child’s sense of displacement and not being normal.
Although Haley’s sections are not the typical narrative form like that of Li-yan’s, Ms. See still gives her a voice. Even in her childhood, Haley is outspoken and curious about her Chinese background. In one section, a transcription of a therapy session for adopted Chinese teenage girls, Haley expresses that she sometimes feels a rift with her parents.
Ms. See alternates between the two characters, but weaves a common thread between their stories — the treasured Pu’er tea. A demanding market for the tea drives the Akha to work with the outside business world, and Li-yan finds herself in the thick of it. Meanwhile, Haley lingers over a keepsake that Li-yan gave to her in parting — a teacake inscribed with a symbol.
Ms. See dedicates a majority of the story to Li-yan, but she gives Haley some character, as she is creative with the nonnarrative form. However, Li-yan’s story unfolds gradually, and it does take some time to get to the climax, which happens to be the very last chapter and told from Haley’s point of view when she is about 21 years old.
Ms. See keeps their stories separate for too long yet reunites them in a limited amount of space. The abrupt ending does not allow for any emotional affect from either Li-yan or Haley, and even the reader. There are questions the reader may have about the aftermath of their reunion, but perhaps this was Ms. See’s intention — for readers to continue the story with their own threads of hope, just as Ms. See does in the novel.
• Emily Kim is an undergraduate studying English literature at the University of Maryland.
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THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE
By Lisa See
Scribner, $27, 384 pages