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Three Souls, by Janie Chang

March 3, 2014

Three Souls, by Janie Chang. William Morrow Paperbacks (2014), Paperback, 496 pages.


An imaginative novel about a Chinese woman who is helped after her death by her “three souls” who lead her to understand her life and make amends for trouble she caused.

Janie Chang has used stories from her own family’s oral histories in composing her novel.  For generations, her family had lived in Pinghu, the town where much of her story takes place, until the family fled the civil war fought by the Chinese Nationalists and Communists and the Japanese invasion.  Chang herself was born in Taiwan and grew up listening to the stories her father told “about ancestors who encountered dragons, ghosts, and immortals and about family life in a small Chinese town.”   On her website, Chang tells the original stories that she heard and reshaped into her novel.

Traditional Chinese beliefs provide the framework for Three Souls.  Leiyin unexpectedly dies while still a young woman, and meets three supernatural beings, her “three souls.” They will help her to sort out what has happened and to make retribution for harm she has caused in order to move into the afterlife.  She had been the daughter of an aristocratic family who had become infatuated with a handsome leftist writer, Hanchen.  Her fantasies about him became intertwined with her desire to attend college.  Because her father refused to allow her to continue her education, she ran away, got caught, and was forced to marry a dull man from a remote village.  Despite finding some happiness and giving birth to a daughter, Leiyin continued to be caught up with people from her past.  Re-imagining what she had done, she looked for ways to ensure the happiness of others.

I found much to enjoy in Chang’s novel. Her depiction of minor characters was often sharp.  Sometimes, however, I felt the book did not live up to the potential of the story or the author’s purpose.  Leiyin, the central figure in the novel, was probably its weakest character. She was incredibly naive and selfish in her attempts to live out her fantasies with Hanchen.  While ready to give herself totally to the man, she refused to see how problematic her actions were.  The descriptions of their sexuality were also too explicit for my taste. At times the book read like a romance, but Hanchen was no saving hero.

Another problem concerns the historical context for Three Souls; a particularly turbulent time in Chinese history when the civil war was occurring between Nationalists and Communists, and the Japanese are invading.  Chang has her characters say the right things about their beliefs and actions in support of both sides, but she fails to bring those beliefs to life as animating forces.  The political aspects of the story are correct but flat, second-hand accounts.

Most of all, I was bothered by how Chang trivialized the “three souls” who help Leiyin find a way to move on.  The three were an old man, a young woman and a figure like a bright light.  I had no problem accepting them as a valid part of the story, but Chang never succeeded in making them real for me.  Rightly or wrongly, I associated them with aspects of the character’s self, rather like the miniatures that Elif Shafak used in Black Milk.  In Chang’s hands, they seemed like poorly drawn Jungian images of male and female archetypes.

Overall, I wish that Janie Chang had been more true to her ancestral stories and less eager to write a marketable story.  I read some of the stories of her website, and I wished she had given us more of them.  Maybe in her next book she will rely more on her authentic  heritage.

I recommend this book to readers who interested in China and its people.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 7, 2014 12:22 am

    How disappointing. 😦 I love good books featuring ghosts, but they seem to difficult to find. Sigh.

    • March 10, 2014 11:20 am

      Yes. I wish there were more. Have you read Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo? I reviewed it. Or Lisa See’s retelling to Chinese stories that I read before I was blogging. You might like her other books as well, but her mysteries may not be comfortable enough.

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