The language of Threads – Gail Tsukiyama
The language of threads, a sequel to The women of Silk is the story of Pei, a Chinese woman that escaped to Hong Kong when the Japanese attacked China during World War II. Much like its prequel, the tone of this book is – gentle, quiet and yet intense. This is the second book by Ms Tsukiyama that I’ve read and I can say, I like her writing.
After reaching Hong Kong, with Ji Shen, a 14 year orphan in her custody, Pei finds boarding at the house run by silk sisters. With one of the sister’s help, she also finds work as a domestic help at the house of an affluent Chinese family. She stays with her employers while Ji Shen, her only family in the big city is at the boardinghouse. Ji Shen grudgingly goes to the school much against her own will as Pei wants Ji Shen to be educated and to settle down. Unfortunately, Pei is wrongly accused of stealing a Pearl necklace (actually stolen by the jealous Fong) and is fired from her Job.
Later she lands a Job as a domestic help with Caroline, a British expatriate and a widow. Caroline allows Pei to bring along Ji Shen and the three women go on to build a great bond. The worlds of Pei and Caroline are far apart. The part of the book where Ji Shen and Pei adjust into Caroline’s world is particularly interesting. While Ji Shen enjoys the morning music that Caroline plays and gladly accepts her way of life, Pei takes her time overcoming her fears and learning the differences in expectations from a domestic help in an English household and a Chinese household. The cultural differences allow for the development of a great bond as the three characters learn about each other.
Once the Japanese take over Hong Kong, Ji Shen and Pei are forced to part with Caroline. While Caroline is taken away to a camp by the beach, Ji Shen and Pei are left to look after themselves in the war-torn city. Caroline leaves behind her Jewelery and money for the girls. The girls visit Caroline each month until her last days.
Meanwhile, Pei reunites with a silk sister and her best friend Lin’s brother, who help Pei start up a store that mends clothes – something she learnt from her mother. Pei is very skillful at the art of mending tears, worn out embroidery, etc . She knows ‘the language of threads’. The business flourishes as the war ends.
Ji Shen’s death from delivering a child sets back Pei. She moves on and lives to grow old, and to go back to the silk house many years later, to see the silk house where she grew up working as a young girl, and to later reunite with her blood sister.
I liked this book better than the prequel, The women of silk. The characters in this one, especially Pei’s character is much more developed than it was in the prequel. Pei has multiple threads running in her life – Ji Shen, earning a living, attachment to the long lost friend – Lin, memories of her family, the war, etc. All these bring out a very real character. I find the nature of Pei’s character, especially the strength she shows when facing all the difficulties in a city where she knew no one – very appealing.