In one of the profusely present and largely unnecessary meanderings of Tie Ning’s novel The Bathing Women into philosophising and moral and emotional theorising, the lead character, Tiao, talks about Balthus’ paintings. She explains that Balthus’ work is extraordinary because he exercised a “graceful sense of restraint” in his art, which helps the audience find a balance between the art and the zeitgeist and so the viewer feels “both at peace and uneasy, a vague tenderness along with panic.” After arduously getting through Ning’s novel, one wishes that she had paid more attention to her own astute observation of Balthus’ work.
First published in 2002 and translated into English 10 years later, Ning’s semi-autobiographical novel has been widely acclaimed for being one of the few books by Chinese women to emerge on the world literary front. It is indeed heartening that women’s work is being noticed and celebrated, but this in itself fails to provide a good excuse for the glorification of some rather poor writing.
The plot is something like this: two sisters, Tiao and Fan, grow up in the provincial city of Fuan after their parents, both of whom are architects, are uprooted from Beijing and sent to do manual labour at Reed River Farm during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Soon after, their mother Wu returns to Fuan to escape the farm and has an affair with a doctor in order to excuse herself from work.
One of the consequences of this affair is a daughter, Quan, who dies soon after in an accident which the sisters could have prevented. What follows then is Tiao and Fan’s journey to adulthood; Tiao becomes a publisher, falls in love with a movie star, falls out of love with him and unites with her ‘true love’; Fan moves to America, has a difficult marriage and feels insecure and jealous most of the time. In between, the novel also follows the life of Tiao’s friend Fei, a headstrong, beautiful and ambitious girl whose mother committed suicide during her childhood after being humiliated publicly in a Communist denouncement meeting for having had a child out of wedlock. The plot summary on the jacket of the book claims that these three women crave redemption and freedom in the face of their guilt and past secrets. I must admit that this was news to me after having read the book; while I was reading it, I recall that I mostly ached to whack some sense into these one-dimensional, emotionally and intellectually stunted women and so put an end to their endless drivelling.
Their characters — especially Fan and Tiao’s — are so poorly developed that one feels that Quan’s death, around which the novel attempts to gather itself every once in a while, didn’t really affect them for all of the novel’s proclamations. Their supposed guilt is neither believable nor consistent and comes and goes at the author’s own convenience and whim. In the latter half, for example, the novel largely forgets Quan and the theme of the ‘dark past’ for a while as several dozen pages are devoted to a Mills and Boon type of rendition of how Tiao comes to realise her true love.
On the whole, the reader is neither able to muster any great empathy for the characters nor relate to them in any significant way. The novel is cluttered with many ‘almost’ moments; moments when you almost feel something for a character or almost understand their motive but then soon enough an unnecessary tangent, a gross magnification of the obvious or a dreaded cliché rears its head and you’re back to feeling frustrated.
Sometimes, reading the novel feels a little like looking at a cubist painting; the narrative is fragmented and focuses more or less inclusively upon one or two characters, events or emotions at a time. In the beginning you hope that the novel is being clever with you and will eventually be able to piece things together in a larger context.
However, after chapter upon chapter of poorly constructed, unconvincing relationships, odd interjections and hurried resolutions, you realise that this comes about from what seems to be the author’s laziness rather than a stylistic experiment. At one point, over a few pages, we are told that the headstrong Fei married a man and was abused by him, but before you can even wrap your head around this character marrying, let alone the man she has married, the episode is dealt with, and both the marriage and the man dissolve away — but only after doing a quite transparent service to the larger plot resolution. The early part of the novel, set during the Cultural Revolution, allows the political and social atmosphere to seep into the narrative; forced labour camps, public denunciation meetings, the desire to join the working class and partake in its advanced consciousness, the threat of being labelled counter-revolutionary and so on. There are incidents and telling details which add to a concrete setting: several particularly touching incidences such as that of Tiao and her classmates being made to dig air raid shelters and of her and her friends surreptitiously churning out culinary delights with the aid of recipes taken from the banned magazine Soviet Women.
However, as soon as the novel moves into the ’80s and ’90s, the context largely disappears and what comes across through the barest of details implies that everything in China is now progress, rainbows and unicorns. This disjunction is quite jarring, not least because the absence of the social milieu in the latter part of the novel is replaced by unrestrained melodrama and sentimentality. For all of this, The Bathing Women does briefly touch upon themes which are apt and interesting, such as peoples’ relationships with cities and food and home, the anxiety of guilt, engagement with history and the burden of the past. And yet, none of these are nurtured and the end product is a novel which fails to do for the reader what Balthus’ paintings do for their viewers; while the latter simultaneously incite excitement, understanding and anxiety, the former is just dull and soporific.
The Bathing Women
Blue Door, UK