Tue, May 07, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Book review: The Third Son

Julie Wu’s novel about a Taiwanese family, set partially in Taiwan and partially in the US, is a remarkable tale that scrutinizes the authoritarianism ingrained within traditional Chinese family values

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Of course, the eventual success of a despised younger son isn’t a new plotline in the long history of the Western novel. Henry Fielding was perhaps the first to use it in his masterpiece Tom Jones, where Tom, initially thought to be a foundling, gets the better of his detestable sibling, the legitimate Blifil. But this doesn’t prevent the device working well once again here.

I also warmed to this novel for reasons additional to the above. There is something about Julie Wu’s clear and concise style that displays, too, an emotional honesty. That is certainly the quality she most admires in Saburo, and, for that matter, Yoshiko. But the author’s wanting goodness to prevail, yet of necessity having to construct obstacles in its path, made me smile on a number of occasions, but invariably with pleasure and never, I hope, with condescension.

The novel has other riches, too. The political theme, for instance, goes a lot further than the portrayal of the emaciated KMT troops, saucepans tied round their necks, who were the first Nationalists to arrive on Taiwanese shores. Nationalist agents are there in the US as well, trailing Saburo and very nearly upsetting his carefully-nurtured plans. Politics also continue to influence lives back in Taiwan. Indeed, Taiwanese history is presented as being a sequence of acts of possession and control by alien powers, of which the Chinese Nationalists are merely the most recent.

The author doesn’t say so, but the two main themes are linked. Asian governments seeking to avoid implementing Western-style human rights legislation often plead the situation is different here, citing “Asian family values.” The irony, and absurdity, of this will be clear to anyone reading this book.

Julie Wu writes that she made a point of listening to her parents in order to understand the realities on the ground of the wartime, and then post-war, years in Taiwan. She also consulted the relevant experts in the US, where she lives, on relevant aspects of space technology in the 1950s.

This novel, then — which came out in hardback last week — is highly recommendable. In fact, in my judgment it’s the best novel featuring Taiwan I’ve ever read. A few others have perhaps more thoroughly worked up particular incidents in depth, but none has been as professionally constructed and as lucidly written as The Third Son. In short, you’d have to be a die-hard KMT supporter, or an enthusiast for traditional Taiwanese family values, not to find this book a fantastically good read.

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