Published by Scribner
Publication date: October 9th 2012
In a family with dignity, there was no room for “other things”, no matter how profoundly someone in this family was shamed, or how deeply the person suffered.
The Bathing Women takes place from the mid-1960s to present day in the city of Fuan, China. It begins with the sisters, Tiao and Fan, being left in a small apartment by their parents, Wu and Yixun, who have been assigned to a re-education camp as a part of the Cultural Revolution. Their mother, Wu, becomes ill and in the course of being treated at a local hospital begins an affair that will have long-term consequences for her family. In the short term it allows her to stay at home with her daughters but the oldest, Tiao, is quick to realize there is more to her mother’s relationship with her doctor than just medical issues.
When the new addition of another sister joins their family neither Tiao nor Fan is accepting of her presence. Tiao is consumed by honor and disgust at her mother’s actions, even contemplating writing to her father and exposing her mother’s secret and Fan is wildly jealous of anyone who replaces her in their mother’s eyes. The two sisters create games that deliberately ignore Quan and refuse to interact with her, even in front of their mother, and despite the child’s tantrums. This pattern of dislike and neglect culminates in an accident when Quan, running towards someone motioning to her, falls into an open manhole and dies. Both sisters witness the accident. For both their lives are changed forever.
Quan, who had rushed into the manhole with her little hands waving many many years ago, had always been the most intimate shadow in Tiao’s heart, her closest companion, who would come at her beckoning but not leave at her dismissal. This little two year old beauty turned Tiao into someone furtive, a perennial debtor.
The book is intricate and intimate, looking at every detail of the emotional life of Tiao, Fan, their parents and their friend Fei and yet, it is also without emotion, as if the details and actions are being clinically observed and reported. This sense of remove, in even the most intimate circumstances, is almost numbing. It creates no impetus to keep one reading. We see Yixun coming to terms with his wife’s infidelity by pretending that Quan is his and then punishing Wu for letting the child die. Later, Wu struggles to regain her husband’s love by undergoing numerous plastic surgeries to make her appearance more youthful and appealing. Fei, a girl of great beauty decides it is her only recourse in life and uses her looks and body to get what she wants until they are gone. These are just a few of the fantastical situations that surround each character and their responses to their circumstances render them into caricatures with no way for the reader to connect.
Author Tie Ning is widely acclaimed in China and The Bathing Women is beautifully written with lyrical sentences but the plot and actions of the characters come off as operatic. Tiao’s sister, Fan, is malicious and vicious to the extreme, a deeply unhappy woman who not only blames everyone for her misery but acts solely to revenge herself against these perceived injustices. Tiao, on the other hand is stoic to a saintly degree. She bears the burden of her guilt and others without complaint and goes so far as to push away the only happiness she has ever known so another woman can be happy. The mind games and complexities of even the simplest conversation are bewildering. Even those between family members are so linguistically acrobatic it is more confusing than enlightening.
All our watching is done to shield ourselves. When will we inspect our own hearts? Almost no one can bear to look closely within. Self-scrutiny leads us into stumbling vertigo, but we must deal with others and have no escape. Others are always our mirrors. The more we fear to look closely at ourselves, the more eager we are to scrutinize them. We comfort our heart’s core with this scrutiny of other people’s flaws.
For those interested in foreign literature or Chinese fiction, The Bathing Women is a unique look into one author’s interpretation of life in modern China but for many it may be a difficult read. The book’s pace is ponderous until the last one hundred pages when confessions abound and mysteries that have lasted through a lifetime are solved. This is startling and could be a marvelous device but comes too late and does nothing to reconcile the characters relationships or futures. There is simply a feeling of wasted lives and sadness.