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Book review: <i>Snow Flower And The Secret Fan</i> by Lisa See

I can’t say I ever thought that much about the tradition of foot-binding, which in some places in China was still happening at the beginning of the twentieth century. Whenever I previously heard it mentioned, it was always in a context that suggested the practice was barbaric and cruel, but I don’t think I every fully conceptualised the idea. Thanks to Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I am now somewhat better informed on the subject of footbinding, as well as other traditions and lifestyle practices in nineteenth century China. Ouch.

The story

Lily comes from poor farming stock in nineteenth century China. She is a girl during a period where girls aren’t valued, and are grudgingly kept until they can be married off. Her mother treats her as such, however when the diviner is asked to find an auspicious date to begin Lily’s foot binding, he and the matchmaker decide that Lily’s feet could be perfect, and could cause her to be matched in marriage prosperously indeed. Thanks to Lily’s potential, she is also given an opportunity that no-one in her family has had before; the opportunity of entering a laotong match with a prosperous girl, with whom she will share a lifetime bond. To be considered she must learn many things, such as how to bear the agony of foot-binding, the ability to run a house, submit to a husband, and the writing language exclusive to women, nu-shu. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is the story of Lily and her various relationships with her family, her laotong, Snow Flower, her husband, and her life at a particular time in Chinese history.

The style

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is written in the first person, the protaganist being Lily. In the very beginning, Lily is writing as an old lady, and the premise of the book is that she is old, she did a lot of things in her life she wasn’t proud of, and she is writing this to explain to her family and laotong what she did, so they will know when they meet her in heaven. It is written in the style of a memoir, which unfortunately involves a lot of heavy duty foreshadowing... a little too much, in my opinion. While it suits the style of writing, the foreshadowing struck me as both clumsy and unnecessary. Aside from this, the actual style itself has a degree of deliberate stiltedness and formality that nicely suits both the character and the historical fiction genre. Lisa See is undoubtedly a good writer: she injects just the right amount of detail and emotion into the story and knows how long to spend on each section. She managed to write an entire lifetime into 360 pages without rushing or getting boring, so she’s pretty talented.

I don’t know about the historical accuracy of the novel, and can’t vouch for it. However, at the end of the book, the author does list a selection of resources she used, and she did travel to this region in China and to do research, so she put in the hard yards. And, it shows in the detail. The descriptions of everything in this book are extremely vivid: the market-places, temples, country side, and characters are all beautifully done and you can practically smell everything. The description of Lily’s foot-binding was so vivid I couldn’t read it and eat at the same time, it was so distasteful.

Who is this book for?

This book is a well-written, easy read and isn’t too taxing to read or understand. A pretty decent time filler. It’s more aimed at the girls, I think, but I really don’t think it excludes male readers. It’s sort of like quality Oprah’s book club. Buy it for your mum.

In short

Title: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Author: Lisa See
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN: 0747583005
Year published: 2006
Pages: 340
Genre(s): Fiction, Historical fiction
Review Type: