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The Hundred Secret Senses
By: Amy Tan


Amy Tan is as delightful to listen to as she is to read. She creates magic in this story of two sisters: Olivia, totally American and pragmatic, and Kwan, Chinese and mystical, who converses more easily with the dead than with the living. Tan's contrasting American and Chinese accents bring both personalities vividly to life and provide enchanting images of alternately conflicting and blending cultures. She needs no special effects to engage the listener's hundred secret senses. B.L.W. ŠAudioFile, Portland, Maine 

From Booklist , September 15, 1995
Tan, a critical and commercial favorite, returns to the fiction scene after a four-year absence with a risky, ambitious novel that tackles themes of loyalty, connectedness, and what it means to be a family. When Olivia Yee's half-sister, Kwan, arrives from China, Olivia's life is irrevocably changed. For one thing, Kwan has yin eyes--she can see ghosts. Every night as they were growing up, Kwan told Olivia bedtime stories about the same group of yin people: a woman named Banner, a man named Cape, a one-eyed bandit girl, and a half-and-half man. But, for Olivia, Kwan is also a perpetual source of embarrassment due to her endless questions, fractured English, and boundless optimism. When Olivia separates from her husband, Simon, Kwan schemes to get them back together, and the three take a trip to China to visit the village where Kwan grew up and to learn the secret of their connection to the yin people. Tan's fantastical novel is both mesmerizing and awkward. She is obviously betting that readers will find the ancient and modern worlds she draws here equally fascinating, but Kwan steals every scene she appears in, and her magnetic ghost stories completely overpower Olivia's more modern tale of a broken relationship. It's no contest, for who can resist the lure of a good old-fashioned ghost story? Joanne Wilkinson
CopyrightŠ 1995, American Library Association. All rights reserved  

Asia Pacific Review

Amy Tan weaves a rich tapestry using the threads of two different story lines -- one set in contemporary San Francisco, the other set in southern China during the latter years of the Taiping Rebellion -- in The Hundred Secret Senses. This newest contribution from the author of The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife is both an affirmation of the power of the human soul and an invitation to learn, along with the narrator, Olivia, about one of the most fascinating transitional periods in modern Chinese history and about Chinese wisdom regarding the spiritual world.

Olivia was six years old when her nearly adult half sister, Kwan, came from China to join the family in San Francisco. Confiding in Olivia, Kwan tells of her "yin eyes" that enable her to communicate with the ghosts of the dead. While Kwan shows nothing but a sometimes pitiful abundance of love and affection for her younger sibling, Olivia is most often irritated and angered by Kwan's wacky stunts, ghost talk, mispronunciations of English words (including Olivia's own name), and invasions of her privacy.

The increasingly complex relationship between the sisters provides much of the book's critical tension. Olivia's feelings of guilt toward Kwan, a result of having once tattled on her for her ghost visions -- thus sending Kwan to a mental institution -- do not prevent Olivia from continuing to treat her poorly. However irked she is by Kwan, as Olivia grows up, she becomes increasingly dependent upon Kwan as a guide into a spiritual world far removed from the experiences of her own American upbringing.

Kwan's "secret senses" allow her to remember a past life in which she was a young woman of the Hakka minority living in southern China in the 1850s. In that life, she resided with a group of American missionaries who had arrived to help establish the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace. (This heavenly kingdom, or taiping tianguo, was founded in 1851 by Hong Xiuquan in an attempt to overthrow the Qing dynasty with a Christian-based rulership. Hong's movement became known as the Taiping Rebellion.) The foreign characters are an entertaining bunch, yet they are not as well-crafted as some of Tan's personas from this and other novels. Their flight from Changmian when Manchu armies arrive in persecution of "the God Worshippers" in 1864 is, however, gripping and compassionate.

The secret senses, those related to our primary instincts, are described by Kwan as "memory, seeing, hearing, feeling, all come together, then you know something true in your heart. Like one sense, I don't know how say, maybe sense of tingle. You know this: Tingly bones mean rain coming, refreshen mind. Tingly skin on arms, something scaring you, close you up, still pop out lots a goose bump."

Kwan teaches Olivia how to use her own secret senses in order resolve her life difficulties-particularly those concerning her relationship with her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Simon. Kwan leads Olivia and Simon to China as part of their spiritual redemption. Olivia learns that "the world is not a place but the vastness of the soul. And the soul is nothing more than love, limitless, endless, all that moves us toward knowing what is true." She discovers that the ability to conjure one's secret senses to communicate with the Yin World allows one to realize the limitless sense of time. This essential tenet of Chinese philosophy, in which an individual existence becomes a mere stem on the giant tree of life, in turn allows Olivia to find inner peace with her activities in this mortal lifetime.

Detroit News

In her third novel, The Hundred Secret Senses, Amy Tan deviates from the mother-daughter relationship so poignantly explored in The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen's God Wife to focus on the lives of half-sisters, American-born Olivia and Chinese-immigrant Kwan.

As in her earlier works, Tan weaves the distinct voices of the two characters into a tapestry of pathos and humor, exploring their complicated relationship as well as cultural conflicts against a backdrop of ghosts, reincarnation and Old World superstitions.

The novel opens with not quite 4-year-old Olivia Yee learning she is not her daddy's only little girl. To her horror, her father's death-bed request is that a daughter he left behind in his native China (from an undisclosed first marriage) be brought to America.

Two years after her father's death, the now 18-year-old Kwan arrives in the United States and enters the reluctant arms of her American stepfamily. It is more than age that separates the two sisters. The puckish Kwan embraces her new family, particularly Olivia.

But the brooding Olivia is mortified by her Chinese half-sister, and baffled by her unfailing loyalty and devotion: "She's like an orphan cat, kneading on my heart. She's been this way all my life, peeling my oranges, buying me candy, admiring my report cards and telling me how smart I was, smarter than she could ever be. Yet I've done nothing to endear myself to her."

Kwan is one of Tan's most memorable characters, "a tiny dynamo, barely 5 feet tall, a miniature bull in a china shop." She wears a purple checked jacket over turquoise pants, decorates her home with garage-sale finds and has a penchant for buying an array of TV-advertised gadgets from Ginsu knives to slicers and dicers.

She is a sharp contrast to Olivia, whose name she pronounces Libby-ah, "like the nation of Muammar Qaddhafi." Olivia is analytical, prone to dark moods and after 17 years of marriage, still living in the shadow of her husband's dead fiance.

Kwan's most distinctive characteristic is her yin eyes, which give her the ability to see the dead. She tells her ghost stories only to Olivia, who dismisses her as crazed. But it is through Kwan's eyes that we gain insight into the rich, complex history of the half-sisters' heritage. In what initially seems like a separate plot running through the novel, Tan takes us into Kwan's other life as a domestic in the Ghost Merchant House of missionaries in 19th-century China. Ultimately, the past and present come together when Olivia and her estranged husband Simon travel to China on a business assignment -- with Kwan in tow.

In Changmian, Kwan's home village, Olivia finally reconciles her relationship with Kwan and her past, and learns to believe in ghosts and the hundred secret senses that keep the past alive. This is storytelling at its most lyrical.

Michele Fecht is a Northville free-lance writer.

Copyright 1995, The Detroit News

USA Today

WASHINGTON - After The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife brought her literary stardom, Amy Tan turned to writing about China's Boxer Rebellion. Besides being fascinated with the conflict, she wanted to prove "that I could do something with more of a political theme to it.''

But there's no mention of the turn-of-the-century uprising in her third novel, The Hundred Secret Senses.

"I realized I can't write themes,'' says Tan, 43, here on a book tour. "I have to tell a story, and the story has to find me.''

In Senses, about half sisters and the dead spirits one of them sees, Tan probes personal and family connections, responsibility and loyalty.

As she pondered the circumstances that link people - and when they don't seem to be mere chance - coincidences made her research fall into place. "If I wanted something having to do with limestone formations in Guilin (China), that night I would be seated next to a stranger, and when I asked him what he did, he was a geologist.''

Tan shelved the project when a close friend became deathly ill. And "the whole story pulled together. As a result of my going off to take care of my friend . . . what I found was the heart of my book. Today my friend is fine; she is the miracle case.''

Coincidences and connections may keep playing a role in her work but perhaps not as much as they have in her life. "The coincidence of three people in my family having brain tumors - my father, my brother and my mother (who has a benign one) - you just say, well, that'd never work in fiction.''

By Tracey Wong Briggs, USA TODAY

Book Description

"TRULY MAGICAL . . . UNFORGETTABLE . . . The first-person narrator is Olivia Laguni, and her unrelenting nemesis from childhood on is her half-sister, Kwan Li. . . . It is Kwan's haunting predictions, her implementation of the secret senses, and her linking of the present with the past that cause this novel to shimmer with meaning--and to leave it in the readers mind when the book has long been finished."--The San Diego Tribune

"HER MOST POLISHED WORK . . . Tan is a wonderful storyteller, and the story's many strands--Olivia's childhood, her courtship and marriage, Kwan's ghost stories and village tales--propel the work to its climactic but bittersweet end." --USA Today

"TAN HAS ONCE MORE PRODUCED A NOVEL WONDERFULLY LIKE A HOLOGRAM: turn it this way and find Chinese-Americans shopping and arguing in San Francisco; turn it that way and the Chinese of Changmian village in 1864 are fleeing into the hills to hide from the rampaging Manchus. . . . THE HUNDRED SECRET SENSES doesn't simply return to a world but burrows more deeply into it, following new trails to fresh revelations.


Chinese-American Olivia Laguni has a battle of wills with her half-sister and lifelong nemesis, Kwan Li, whose haunting predictions and implementation of the secret senses link their family's struggles to the challenges of their ancestors. Reprint.

Amy Tan's latest effort unfolds a series of family secrets that questions the connection between fate, beliefs, and hopes, memory and imagination, and the natural gifts of our hundred secret senses. Years after her Chinese half-sister assails her with ghost stories set in the mysterious world of Yin, a young woman finds herself in China, looking for a way to reconcile the ghosts of her past with the dreams of her future. 

From the Publisher
I hadn't read an Amy Tan book since Kitchen God's Wife and it was refreshing to see that she just gets better and better with her storytelling! This book was a lot more authentic. Kwan Li, Olivia's stepsister was such an intriguing character who had much more depth as you got to know her. In fact, she had so much depth that I feel like I missed somethings by reading this book only once. Kwan's ability to link the present with the past in a believable fashion was an example of Amy Tan's talent.



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