Anchee Min, the best-selling author of RED AZALEA, has written a moving, painful, poetic and visceral novel about a woman's life, a real woman's life, but explained with such loving reverence for the struggle she experienced as a woman and as an icon that you will find it as hard to read as it is hard to put down. BECOMING MADAME MAO is a remarkable achievement and destined to be a classic of historical fiction.
The Madame Mao of the title is, of course, the Madame Mao, the "White-Boned Demon," the wife of China's legendary ruler, the woman who is the Yoko Ono of contemporary Chinese politics, doomed for what she did as much as she was doomed for what she did not do. We are spared no detail in understanding the physical and emotional difficulties of life in the spotlight as well as life as a Chinese woman. In the first few pages, after a particularly graphic explanation of how Madame as a young girl tore apart her almost-bound feet in rage at the horror of what was being done to her, we see that her life is not going to follow the path predetermined by her mother.
Without bound feet, without the need to be carried around one's whole life, a woman was considered much less than beautiful, created not for pleasure but for physical labor. It is a strange and stubborn environment in which she grows up, one that will surely shock and dismay Western audiences. But Min spares us nothing as she delves into the personal details of this woman's life. Yet, at the same time that she is giving us such deep historical information, she is also chronicling for us the pains and joys and disappointments and successes of a real woman, flesh and blood. If you took away the historical material, it could be the story of any woman, anywhere. And that is what draws us so deeply into this life.
Min has a way with words that is at once crude and transcendent. "Surely almost everyone is drawn to deception," she realizes at one point, and it is true in many forms in BECOMING MADAME MAO --- it is true for us, as sometimes we are deceived by the narrator's calm tone when all hell is breaking loose around her, the same way the nation is being deceived by these rulers who offer so much and expect so much in return. BECOMING MADAME MAO is a powerful and moving portrait of a woman's life. It is Min's crowning achievement in a career that is young and yet so full of praise and success already.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on April 15, 2001