Book review: The Bathing Women by Tie Ning
The Bathing Women: A Novel
by Tie Ning
On the cover of The Bathing Women, a young woman with an Anna May Wong bob framing her pink mouth reclines in silks, suggesting similarly soft-focus, exoticised portraiture à la Amy Tan or Lisa See lies within.
But bestselling mainland writer Tie Ning's first novel to be translated into English does not distance readers with the cultural alienation that is the premise of the books it has been pigeonholed with.
Cultural Revolution self-criticisms, immigration to the US, and the modern prosperity of urban Chinese life are vividly and aptly rendered, but they do not completely account for Tie's protagonists, whose perceptions and moral conflicts serve to illuminate character or advance plot rather than to emphasise their historical circumstances.
Tie is a gifted storyteller with a weakness for sentimental theatricality, and her novel is arresting and entertaining. The narrative focuses around Tiao, a children's book editor of more than average thoughtfulness and elegance living in one of the sprawling cities that no one outside of China has heard of.
Tiao's life is dominated by guilt over the death of her youngest sister in an accident and a protracted affair with a much older movie star. There are lengthy flashbacks to her stark Cultural Revolution childhood, and forays into the perspective of Tiao's mother, her sister Fan who moves to Chicago, her sexually precocious friend Fei and, briefly but memorably, the men responsible for them.
The plot features the stuff of Chinese soaps: Tiao's mother cares more for her indifferent lover than her children, her sister compulsively vies to steal her suitors, her best friend is a prostitute, and then there is teen pregnancy and abortion, frequent adultery, and passionate letters and fights between lovers. Unsurprisingly, the novel has been adapted into a television series.
Readers will nonetheless find resonant, moving moments, but not from the texture of the prose so much as their ability to recognise their own experience in it.
While the novel threatens constantly to veer into superficial excess, the work of translation team Zhang Hongling and Jason Sommer has a lyrical authority in its own right. In one potentially farcical moment, as two couples race each other towards a discreet house at the work farm to seize a rare opportunity for intimacy, one of the women feels "embarrassed about her big steps because … now she had to announce to reeds, trees, bricks and tiles, and all these irrelevant things, in broad daylight and with her inelegant way of walking, that she wanted to make love to her husband".
The intelligent and evocative writing keeps the story moored to an emotionally plausible core, which is about the shaping effect of deprivation and how people may still draw reservoirs of love and kindness from these voids.