World and Town
Knopf, Oct 5 2010, $26.95
In her late sixties and on the anniversary of five decades in the United States, Widow Hattie Kong misses her late husband and her best friend who both died from cancer. A descendent of Confucius and a missionary, Hattie muses that since she used the same church, the same organist and the same crematory, she should have received a group rate discount; an American buy one get one free.
Two years since the dual burial, Hattie lives in Riverlake. There she meets an immigrant Cambodian family who live in an overly crowded trailer; patriarch Chhung survived Pol Pot though his first wife could not cope with a burial atrocity by the Khmer Rouge. Also in their neighbored is retired neuroscientist Dr. Carter Hatch. Hattie and Chhung’s teenage daughter Sophy becomes friends. Apparently Chhung, who met Sophy’s mother in a Cambodian concentration camp, relocated from the inner city to keep his adopted son Saran away from the gangs. Feeling all alone in American and unable to connect with his children as his son resents the abode in the burbs and his daughter becomes an evangelical Christian, a frustrated Chhung explodes while on the East Coast terror has come to America in the skies. Hattie feels a need to help Sophy and her family, but is unsure what to do.
The strong cast makes for a profound look at Asian immigrants at a time when Americans turn xenophobic. Hattie holds the character driven story line together as she finds a reason to live; she goes from “I’ll but lie and bleed awhile” to “Rising to Fight Again”. Gish Jen makes a strong case that in an ideal world, we would go way beyond just religious and racial tolerance to include harmoniously welcoming other beliefs, but this is not an ideal world as The Killing Fields, 9/11 and post 9/11 prove.