Monday, October 24, 2011

Chinese Cinderella, by Adeline Yen Mah

I recorded this book upon request for Malaysian Association for the Blind. The book's full title is Chinese Cinderella: The Secret Story of an Unwanted Daughter.

Adeline Yen Mah was born in Tianjin, China in 1937; her mother died shortly after delivering her. A few years later, Adeline's father re-married, and her new step-mother relegated the first wife's children to the background, Adeline included. This book tells the story of her unhappy childhood until, as a teen-ager, she left to attend university in England.

I'm very reluctant to write anything derogatory about an autobiography, especially when an author has had the courage to write and publish her emotional trauma. And her childhood was indeed a cold, lonely one. Her father and step-mother spoilt the two natural children they bore together, while Adeline and her siblings were sent to an upper floor, dressed plainly, fed simply and forbidden basic pleasures. Little Adeline found solace in the company of her Aunt Baba and her paternal grandfather, also living in the same home, and eventually in her schoolwork. She consistently came home with honours, always hoping that her father would see something of value in her. His new wife, however, playing the role of wicked step-mother to perfection, developed an especial loathing for Adeline and ensured that the girl remained all but invisible to her father. During the years immediately following WWII, when the Communists were battling the Nationalists for control of China, Adeline's parents resolved to put her at a Catholic boarding school in Tianjin. (The rest of the family had since migrated to Shanghai.) On the plane north, struggling with landing forms, Adeline's father confessed that he couldn't remember her given name or her birth date.  She supplied the former but never knew the latter, as the memories of her mother's death had expunged it from family discussion. He gave her his own birthday. A year or two later, distant relatives fetched Adeline from the convent school as Communist troops bore down on Tianjin; her parents appeared to have forgotten about her. And so it goes.

I can sincerely say that my heart aches for the child Adeline. I admire that she followed the advice of her aunt, grandfather and caring teachers and strove academically. After winning an international play-writing competition, her father relented and agreed to send her to a British university alongside her brothers, so her scholastic efforts did win her freedom in the end. I wish I could speak more enthusiastically about the book. I believe the author intended it for an audience of adolescent girls who, as she had, feel unloved and worthless. To me, however, the book reads like a fable, a fairy tale -- indeed, like Cinderella. The villains are ceaselessly vile, and the heroes overly good. Although she tries to inject some Chinese culture into the story -- the grandfather delivers a lengthy soliloquy on the art of Chinese orthography -- it's at a very basic level, aimed at readers who know little if anything about China. I'm sorry to say that the book just left me flat.

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