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Women of the Silk


Women of the Silk

If Charles Dickens had lived in early 20th-century China, he would have been Gail Tsukiyama and would have enjoyed the well-deserved praise with which Gail Tsukiyama's first novel WOMEN OF THE SILK was lauded. A quiet and moving coming-of-age novel about a young Chinese woman sold into the silk trade by her poor parents, WOMEN OF THE SILK is so full of intensely drawn characters and unpredictable acts that it is very difficult to put down.

Born into a traditional patriarchal family, young Pei enjoys what she can of her pastoral town while being dominated at home by her difficult father. She is one of several daughters in the family and, according to a fortuneteller in the nearby town, "non-marrying." Her father, displeased to be lording over a family of all daughters, decides to sell her off to Auntie Yee, a warm, nurturing woman who runs a home for the silk workers.

These are women who have met similar fates to that of Pei and have also been sent to Auntie Yee by their families to make money in the mills and look forward to a happy spinster retirement at the age of forty.  Refusing an arranged marriage (the usual method of finding a partner) or choosing exile from a shameful and violent home also sends some of the girls to the mills.  In the meantime, they make lots of money and learn to establish lasting, deep bonds with each other.

Although initially untouched by the war with Japan, which rages miles away, the community eventually turns its attentions to the world furor, along with the combined difficulties of monsoons, isolation, strike, war and death taking their toll on the girls and Auntie Yee.

Tsukiyama's rendering of Pei's journey is insightful and gentle, though not without tension, simply inviting us little by little to care more and more deeply about the young girl growing up, about her friends at the mill, about the opportunity that striking and forming a union will afford all these women, and, finally, about the dual tensions of forgiveness and forgetting as Pei makes a symbolic visit back home for reconciliation.  I found Pei's drama beautifully told and I deeply felt her pain as she weighed the limited options available to a girl of her time who chose instead to go to Hong Kong in search of a new, unfettered life alone.  It is a brave book that makes celibacy look like a viable choice for independent women and touches on a string of issues which makes a contemporary reader feel very much a part of the universe Pei inhabits.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 24, 2011

Women of the Silk
by Gail Tsukiyama

  • Publication Date: October 15, 1993
  • Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction
  • Paperback: 278 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
  • ISBN-10: 0312099436
  • ISBN-13: 9780312099435