I had Lisa See’s Snow Flower And The Secret Fan lying on my bookshelf for over a year. I picked it up often and browsed through the first few pages several times, but couldn’t continue reading because every single time, I got depressed and had to put the book away. Finally, last week, I gathered the courage to plod on and read beyond the first few pages, and I did finish the book!
If I had to describe this book in one word, I would say it is ‘fascinating’. Set in 19th century China, the book is narrated by a woman, Lily, who is in her eighties. Lily tells the tale of how, having been born into a poor family of farmers in a drought-ridden village in China, she was destined to marry into another average family and lead an average life. However, fate has something else in store for her. When Lily is seven, the local diviner discovers that her feet have the potential to turn into one of the prettiest in the county when she finishes her ‘foot binding‘, and that she could marry into a rich family in neighbouring Tongkou. This would change Lily’s and her family’s fate for ever, considering the high bride price that she would fetch.
‘Foot binding’ is a tradition that most Chinese girls had to follow in those times when they were six or seven years of age, ‘the custom of binding the feet of young girls painfully tight to prevent further growth’ (quote from Wikipedia). Foot binding would ensure that the feet of these girls turned out tiny (as small as seven centimetres!!) which, in turn, would enable them to marry into good households, for tiny, perfectly-bound feet called ‘golden lilies’ were a major criteria while choosing a girl for marriage. Of course, the process involves a lot of broken bones and is extremely painful.
Lily’s feet also make her eligible for a ‘laotong‘ relationship, a special bond between two girls that would last their entire lives and enable them to share their deepest emotions with each other, something which could not be said of a marriage. Marriages were highly formal arrangements in those days, and a wife was little more than a caretaker for her husband’s family. A wife had no right to ask questions of her husband, or share her feelings with him – all she was expected to do, and was accepted by women as well, was to follow her husband wherever he went and do as he said. At the age of six or seven, Chinese girls used to know the harsh truth of the marriages that they would have to enter into – and in these circumstances, the suggestion of a ‘laotong’ match, of getting a friend with whom she could share everything, excited Lily to no end. Not that girls could get too excited in those days, for it was improper conduct for them.
Lily enters into a ‘laotong’ match with a girl called Snow Flower from Tongkou, and the two start sharing confidences through a fan, in ‘nu shu‘, a secret language that was used for communication by the women of those times, something that no man was privy to. The secret language was, sort of, the only way in which the women of those days rebelled against their circumstances. Lily and Snow Flower’s relationship continues for long years and through many stages of their lives, till a misunderstanding threatens to end it all.
This was my first attempt at reading historical fiction, and I was enchanted by it. It gave me a glimpse into the traditions of a country that is not very different from my own, into intriguing customs like nu shu, writing on fans, foot binding and laotong relationships. It made for a wonderful read. As I said, the book did depress me a lot of times – it made me feel for all that those women had to suffer and silently bear in those times. It is painful to read about how women were considered so utterly worthless that their fathers, brothers and husbands would not worry if one of them died – after all, she was just one more mouth to feed! That said, I found the book inspiring, too, in the sense that I saw the women trying to be the strongest that they can in their circumstances – sometimes a great thing in itself.
The book is not slow – events unfold in Lily and Snow Flower’s lives one after the other – but there is actually not much happening, if you get what I mean. I had to constantly remind myself that the book is set in the 19th century and that many things that we now take for granted were probably a big deal then.
The book made me feel glad for having been born in a different time, for having been born as me, and for having a life of my own, however flawed it might look at some times.
Reading Snow Flower And The Secret Fan has been a very different experience – the book is quite different from what I have read so far. It is an enlightening book about an era that is very different from the one we live in today yet, in some ways, is not so very much different. I would recommend this book to one and all.