Sat, Jul 23, 2016 - Page 14 News List

Book review: Behind the masks

Set in turn-of-the-century Seoul and Taipei, Shih Chiung-yu’s novel depicts what it means to be a woman reconciling the scars of a tortured past with living in a globalized era

By Dana Ter  /  Staff reporter

It’s the male characters in the novel who are driven by hatred. They lash out violently, spew nationalist ideologies and seek to rectify past injustices committed against their ancestors. Jiaying’s father is obsessed with “national salvation,” which seems silly to Jiaying’s mother who complains: “What’s the use of national salvation if you can’t even save your family?” Needless to say, he still pens letters to the Queen of England asking her to return China’s national treasures despite his wife’s pleas to just let it go because “the Opium War was a hundred years ago.”

In similar vein, Zhou forces Judy to scream, “I love this Chinaman,” while having sex at Yasukuni Shrine, a site commemorating Japanese war heroes in Tokyo, and Fat Luo, Jiaying’s childhood friend, tells her, “return to your people,” when she dates Lawrence, her “blonde haired, blue eyed” boyfriend.

The book’s title is not just a cynical take on human nature, but alludes more generally to how people are not what they seem. There is depth and complexity to characters that appear farcical on the surface. The so-called racism of the male characters is not completely unfounded, but the bigger point is that hatred begets hatred and that it’s better to remember and not dwell. This is something that the female characters understand.

What Shih does best, however, is demonstrating the elusive nature of identity. It’s immensely refreshing to read a book that does not harp on what it means to be “Taiwanese” vs “Chinese.” Rather, Taiwan is situated in the broader context of contemporary world history. Jiaying continually asserts that she is “from Taiwan,” though, at times, she does not believe herself. She is somewhat envious of Judy’s idealism, in particular, the younger woman’s romantic notion of a “borderless world” and her assertion that “nations have absolutely no meaning to me.” But being “a black-haired, yellow-skinned Asian,” Jiaying feels compelled to ascribe to some sort of identity.

This brings into question whether or not it’s easier for Westerners to be global citizens because their parents or grandparents weren’t robbed of their identity by foreign powers. It’s a lot to chew on, and the book does not reach a definitive conclusion. What it does do is show that history is a tangible force that’s alive and well. Whether we realize it or not, it shapes who we are and influences our decisions.

The narrative is as beautiful as it is tragic, though the final conflict is a little far-fetched. It is unclear if the author is being hyperbolic here. Although Shih tries to steer clear of absolutisms, the ending is too open-ended. If these events had taken place today, 15 years later, perhaps Jiaying would have come to the realization that she can be both a global person and Taiwanese. Moreover, she can choose to not let conflicts solely define who she is.

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