Tiger Tail Soup by Nicki Chen is a historical novel of the Pacific War, from the point of view of a Chinese woman. Author Nicki Chen is an American who gained a Chinese surname by way of marriage, and any reader will fully sense her fascination with China. She has done the proper research for such a novel. She takes the voice of An Lee, a strong-willed woman who gets left behind to raise children and live with her mother-in-law when her husband goes off to war.
The novel opens in 1946, then jumps back to 1938 and slowly goes through the war years until the epilogue rounds out back to the original year. Full of fanciful language and observations on gender roles in traditional societies – from the Qing Dynasty to the Republic era – and conflicts start off with simple things like getting a perm to look modern and soon grow to horrifying proportions.
Basically, the narrative takes place within the mind of the introspective narrator. Early on, darkness looms from afar. She carries a son in the Year of the Tiger, and is given fortunes of greatness. Then her engineer husband Yu-ming is conscripted as an officer, and most of the novel is about what happens to the war-weary women who are left behind.
At times, the narrator gets too lost in her own thoughts, endlessly reflecting and repeating herself as she dwells on her family and lot in life. The flow suffers for it, but that is the nature of this kind of story.
When the bombs begin to drop, the tone changes dramatically. The violence becomes very real, and that is of course the nature of war.
The chapters of the book are divided into seasons and year, and tales of pregnancy and childbirths and contrasted against the distant war. Themes of life and death. A son is born, a father seldom seen. There are attempts to let life go on, as schools remain open. An Lee’s husband’s letters are very important, describing being in the midst of the war. Yet overall it’s still a tale of women. And the emotions always outweigh any action. Time moves on and children age, with snippets of tragedy throughout. Some of the most powerful imagery in the novel concerns simply going to the beach and seeing Japanese battleships. And the suffering grows.
Tiger Tail Soup is not an objective overview of the war, but simply one deep character’s perspective. The hatred against the Japanese even seems one-sided, although in this context it is certainly well-deserved. The reader must remember that it is first-person narrated novel, not a textbook.
The historical aspect stays interesting as the book goes on, with references that range from the Gone With the Wind film to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Halfway through the plot does thicken, and An Lee joins a resistance league which engages in street theater performances. There are arguments, politics, more conflict. When she does finally meet her husband again, and one son meets for the first time, war has changed and hardened the man. Hardened everyone.
Bringing another child into this war-torn world proves to be the greatest tragedy of all in the end. When the worst most possible violence happens near the end of the novel, it is very jarring.
The theme above all is survival, and is best summed up this quote: “It was my fate to live in a time of war, and I bloody well was going to be one of the survivors.”
Tiger Tail Soup comes recommended for readers interested in this period of China, and for anyone who might wish to learn about the human cost of war. Available on Amazon.