Have you ever read a book with a fantastic plot, but it was hindered completely by the terrible writing? …I just finished a prime example of that this morning: “The Excluded Wife” by Yuen-Fong Wong.
I’m going to guess that Yuen-Fong Wong’s first language is anything but English. It got better the farther into the book I went, as though she was learning via writing, but still… It was only determination that got me that far.
However, the plot is potentially brilliant. (I say “potentially”, because it really was rather completely hidden under the clunky writing.) I’d only tell you to consider this book if you don’t mind forcing your way through some seriously awkward sentence goo and dialogue funkiness to get to what is the promise of a very meaty story.
…Accordingly, I’m having a hard time writing this review. I guess if you read a book written in bad English, you wind up being brainwashed into writing about the book in bad English. Fantastic!
“The Excluded Wife” tells the story of Sau-Ping, a young woman who gets married in 1933 to a fellow ten years her senior, Yik-Man. Things are made a hint awkward by the fact that Yik-Man lives in Vancouver, but Sau-Ping is forced to stay behind in Toi-Shaan County, in southern China. Yik-Man does come home for the wedding (which is not necessarily the rule for such arrangements), and stays put long enough to get Sau-Ping pregnant… But then he has to run back to Vancouver: the family is dependent on the income of the Canadian restaurant where Yik-man works.
After that, Sau-Ping stays at home with her mother-in-law and young brother-in-law. Things don’t fall into the stereotypical pattern here, where daughter-in-law and mother-in-law struggle to get along… They just sort of tensely live together, going about their daily lives. Maybe it was supposed to have more struggle in it, but I couldn’t sense it hiding anywhere from under the weird writing style.
Anyhoo, eventually the Japanese arrive, and Sau-Ping and her family flee to safety, living in a shack of grass and leaves and sticks, barely managing to survive. Again, this could have been incredibly tense, but it was really just… clunky and choppy.
Well, then they get back to their home village, and Sau-Ping’s mother-in-law dies. It’s now up to both her and her brother-in-law to run the household, which grows to consist of Sau-Ping’s natural daughter, purchased son, childhood friend, and that woman’s daughter. But things don’t go smoothly, because if they did, what sort of story would this be? Nope… As soon as they get rid of the Japanese, the Nationalists show up. And then the Communists.
Eventually, things get so bad for Sau-Ping that she’s forced to flee to Hong Kong, taking along everyone in the household except for her brother-in-law, who has been sent away to a camp by the Communists. This is about the time the writing starts to make sense. So… either it improved, or I got numb to it. Whatever it was, the book got way better from this point forward.
Hong Kong is also recovering from its run-in with the Japanese, and things aren’t quite as perfect as Sau-Ping had imagined. She spends three years as a refugee, trying to scrape by, not certain of her fate. As a sign of hope, and also of betrayal, Yik-Man agrees to sponsor their purchased son to move to Vancouver, leaving behind his wife and natural daughter. This means more money coming to Sau-Ping, but it also means she’s been abandoned once again.
Sau-Ping meets with mild success, and then dramatic failure, in Hong Kong. Eventually, things become so dire that Yik-Man sponsors Sau-Ping’s immigration to Canada… But at the price of their daughter, who is left behind to survive as the adopted addition to Sau-Ping’s sister’s poor family.
Once in Vancouver, Sau-Ping discovers yet again that life isn’t going to be as easy as she’d expected: Yik-Man’s restaurant is all-encompassing, and her life immediately begins to revolve around it. She lives there, works there, and raises more children there. …This part made me hungry for Chinese food, if nothing else.
Then there’s the matter of Chinese survival in Canada. The Chinese come to Canada for the money, but they despise the Canadians and their culture. The Canadians, meanwhile, see the Chinese as poor and dirty, and they try to shove them out of the way. Sau-Ping experiences the struggles of that environment, along with internal family problems that go so far as to land them all in court. It’s an interesting plot, yet insanely clipped and summarized. This book should’ve been a lot longer – there’s enough plot here to take up twice as many pages, at the very least.
The ending is good, if not so sudden that it didn’t totally blindside me. Like, I don’t think anything else would have worked, but I so wasn’t prepared for it to just stop. I sort’ve doubted it for a few minutes, thinking my book was missing a few pages or something.
So! Would I recommend “The Excluded Wife”? Well… Not if you can’t handle bad English. If you don’t mind struggling through bad writing, then there is, potentially, a very good plot to be enjoyed. …But it’s very, very barren, barely described, and pounded out at a quick clip.
I guess I’d recommend it if you like stories about Chinese people from the past hundred years or so. If that’s your thing, then this book has tremendous promise. …If that’s not your thing, maaaaaybe not so much, eh?