Women of the Silk – Gail Tsukiyama
The many praises and reviews got me to read this book. Gail Tsukiyama’s first novel, Women of the Silk deserves all those praises. It is a moving, quiet and yet intense coming-of-age novel of a young Chinese woman, who is sold to a house of silk by her poor parents.
Pei is born as one of the many daughters, into a patriarchal family, dominated by her father. She tries to have as much fun as she can in the constrained household. Pei is the most talkative, curious and opinionated girl among her sisters and according to a fortune teller, the “non-marrying” one. Another girl child is born into the family and Pei’s mother is sorry and father, displeased. Soon, she sees the death of the little baby. Her father determines Pei’s fate and leaves her at a silk house run by a warm, motherly woman, Auntie Yee. The arrangement is that, she would work at a silk factory, stay at the silk house and her family would get most of Pei’s salary.
She meets many girls of similar fate at the silk house. In fact, many poor families keep a girl child aside for silk work so that, she could provide for the family in difficult times. Failed marriages and aversion to arranged marriage also lead some girls to this place. These girls live together, work hard, earn good money, make strong bonds with one another and look forward to retiring as spinsters at an early age.
The effect of war with Japan begins to touch the village and the silk house. It results in the death of some girls and Auntie Yee at the silk house. Pei visits her parent’s house for the first time after she was left at the silk house. She forgives them and re-bonds with her mother. After many tragedies, Pei takes the brave step of escaping to Hong Kong in search of a new life.
The characters in the book have gentle, quiet charm. The author takes you through the personal losses Pei faces and you begin empathizing with her and her friends at the silk house. As the pages go by, the story picks up pace and Pei’s drama and her universe engulf you. Even after having read a bunch of books set in China, this one strikes me as exotic.