December 15, 2011

Bone by Fae Myenne Ng

Fae Myenne Ng's Bone is the story of Leila, a young woman who has grown up in San Francisco's Chinatown with her two younger sisters, Nina and Ona.  The novel starts with Leila's search for her stepfather, Leon, in order to tell him that she has eloped with her long-time boyfriend.

The chronology in Bone is especially intriguing; it starts at the present moment with Leila returning from the trip that resulted in her wedding and then works its way backward.   The reader is treated to a peculiar phenomenon that I like to call reverse foreshadowing, in which Leila mentions things, both inconsequential and important, that will be brought up as the novel moves backward through time.  As the book progresses, several images and phrases repeat to provide a layered depiction of Leila's life among the streets of Chinatown. 

I wasn't particularly bowled over by Leila as a narrator, yet I adored the way she describes the people around her.  The dynamic between her mother and Leon is convoluted and somehow both tragic and adorable at the same time.  Leon was an especially rich character, with idiosyncracies and endearing qualities.  In one scene, Leila is searching for a document among Leon's things and paints such a vivid picture of him by the papers she finds:
Leon kept things because he believed time mattered.  Old made good.  These letters gained value the way old coins did; they counted the way money counted.  All the letters addressed to Leon should prove to the people at the social security office that this country was his place, too.  Leon had paid; Leon had earned his rights.  American dollars.  American time.  These letters marked his time and they marked his endurance.  Leon was a paper son (58). 
Leila's descriptions of minor characters bring them to life instantly, and her Chinatown is peppered with characters who appear only once or twice but somehow make a lasting impression.  The reader is told early on that Ona, the middle sister in the Leong family, is dead, but Fae Myenne Ng weaves the ghost of her memory throughout the novel. 

I read Bone during the recent readathon, and a part of me regrets that.  This book is not meant to be rushed through, and I wish I had spent more time lingering over its language and characters.  Bone is Ng's debut novel, and I will certainly be looking to see what else she has published. 

Bone © Fae Myenne Ng and Hyperion, 1993. 

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