Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Arlene Chai (The Last Time I Saw Mother)

Arlene Chai was born in Manila and migrated to Australia where she wrote her first novel, The Last Time I Saw Mother, which was published in 1995. The story is about a family secret revealed and remembered by 4 women whose personal tales intertwine.

The title would be Caridad's, who tells of her missing past and the complexities of the concepts of roots and home as a Filipina in Australia. The story begins when she receives a rare letter from her mother telling her to come home. The letter revealed nothing but took her on a journey back to the place where she was born and to a time earlier than her conscious past.

The other voices are Thelma's, who summons Caridad to give her the gift of her history and the truth which she owed her daughter; Emma's, the younger sister of Thelma who survived a war, her husband's death, financial straits and a decision that would change the lives of two families forever; and Ligaya's, the eldest daughter of Emma who, upon revealing her part of the family secret, paved the way for Caridad's understanding of the past and for Ligaya's own healing.

I like books that make me think and feel. This book made me rethink what I believe to be the sometimes subtle differences between what is right and what is wrong and whether something wrong can be considered right in the absence of choice. The story is told simply, casually; the shroud of secrecy peeled off layer by layer. There is suspense but without surprise and the urgency that usually accompanies the chapters before the revelation. Although the accounts of the Japanese occupation and the lasting influences of Spanish, American and Chinese cultures on our own make for a rich and colorful backdrop, I find that 5 pages devoted solely to describing the excesses of the Marcos regime are a bit too much in that these paragraphs seem to have no significance to the story and did little to enhance its development.

What the novel lacks in excitement, it makes up for in drama. It has an engaging beginning, a solid middle, but I feel that the ending is somewhat weak. It is Caridad's story, her coming face to face with the truth that was denied her; the other women were, though major characters, merely pieces of a puzzle necessary to fill in the gaps. Still, I find that it is in her voice that I feel the least emotion, the least sympathy for and the most disbelief. I am more drawn to the other characters for different reasons: for their weakness, courage, resilience and pride, and for their values and beliefs that mirror my own. Caridad's character failed to connect with me, not because her story is any less believable or interesting. Maybe it's because her character seems to have been developed haphazardly; her personal conflict but a minor inconvenience that there is no feeling of triumph in its resolution.

My 14-year old was required to read it for English class. It's a good choice for a novel because it gives the student a lot of material to gain insight from and to compare his own maturing moral code with. I would still recommend the book, especially if one is in high school with a book report to write.



mel u said...

I am so glad to see a post on this book-I actually bought the book as the author attended Mariam College where one of my daughters now goes-I thought it did a good job with the multiple points of view and I like the setting detail and WWII background-great review-I tried her second novel but did not like it all that much

blooey said...

I was a bit wary of this book, but found it surprisingly engaging. It gave me the feeling of tuning in to the neighborhood chismis about some family's deep dark secrets :D

Parang telenovela!

mental wayfarer said...

mel u: I think telling the story in 4 voices was a great idea, not to mention her many insights on Philippine history. It was just disappointing that Caridad seemed so flat as a character. Might be a while before I pick up another book by Chai, but maybe you can recommend other Filipino authors?

blooey: Yup, telenovela-ish. Which I don't particularly like to watch, that's why it wasn't exactly a page-turner for me. But the book was okay. Na-enjoy ko naman din.

mel u said...

I have posted on three Filipino writers on my blog in 2009

Some recommended Filipino writers

mental wayfarer said...

Thanks, mel u. It seems you have a number of Japanese authors there that I can pick up for future reading, too.