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This American life

Aging, lonely Chinese immigrant struggles with shadows of past

In “World and Town,” Gish Jen creates a world of immigrant pain and stumbling. In “World and Town,” Gish Jen creates a world of immigrant pain and stumbling. (Romana Vysatova)
By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / October 10, 2010

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Unlike the immigrant protagonists of Gish Jen’s previous novels, Hattie Kong, 68 and living in the United States since she was 12, has, to all appearances, left her half-Chinese origins behind and become thoroughly American. Widowed and retired after a long teaching career, she has moved to Riverlake, a small town in upstate New York. She takes full part in community life: She is a member of a women’s walking and yoga group, a regular at town meetings, a baker of cookies, active in good causes, and a vigilantly helpful neighbor.

Yet the past eats away at her determined buoyancy: the simultaneous deaths of a witty and comforting husband and of a friend who was virtually her alter ego. Also, years before that, the blighting of a promising career as a biology researcher when her mentor (also her lover) betrayed her by suddenly withdrawing his support. And, because this is Gish Jen, a seemingly absurd plea wafts up from Hattie’s long-buried Chinese identity; a plea utterly out of keeping with her American style of life.

“World and Town” is an expansive, brilliantly detailed portrait of the struggle within Hattie between her generously practiced American present and the shadows that test it. Shadows from her bereavement: the ache of a lonely woman growing old. From her curtailed career: the sudden reappearance in Riverlake of Carter Hatch, her onetime betrayer. From her ancestral identity: plaintive appeals by relatives urging her to ward off bad luck by transporting the bones of her parents from the Midwest to the family graveyard in China where Confucius, their common ancestor, once was buried.

These things play out through a series of testing events. Carter, retired and settled nearby, comes and goes, alternately wooing and quarreling until he confesses his betrayal and takes a luminous place in Hattie’s life. The biggest test is the arrival of a destitute family of Cambodian immigrants who lodge in a decrepit trailer in sight of Hattie’s house. The elderly father is half-mad from their sufferings under the Khmer Rouge; the mother immerses herself in Buddhist prayer; and the teenage son, Sarun, is dangerously linked to a youth gang.

Hattie devotes herself to helping, trying to ease them into American ways — initially meeting with suspicion and only gradually winning their trust. Jen creates a whole world of immigrant pain and stumbling, including a perilously violent outbreak; even better, in Hattie she combines the idealistic American do-gooder with someone who deep down draws on her own troubling immigrant ghosts for a darker understanding.

Hattie’s closest and most loving engagement is with Sophy, the Cambodians’ teenage daughter: lively, outgoing, and the reclusive family’s emissary to the outside world. Sophy responds wholeheartedly; that is, until she falls under the spell of Hattie’s neighbor Ginny, a member of an aggressively proselytizing born-again church, and turns against Hattie.

Jen vividly portrays the allure of the sect’s display of lavish warmth to attract a needy convert and its teaching of ruthless rejection of those on the outside. Hattie fights, partly to win back Sophy’s trust and, beyond that, to free her from the walls the sect puts up against the wider American life that Hattie has made her own.

“World and Town” is lavish with acutely drawn incidents and characters. The blind isolation of the Cambodian father and his assault upon his son for his gang associations, one that sends the boy gravely injured to hospital, are clearly linked to the old man’s unspeakable suffering in Cambodia. Carter’s sudden, radiant appearances — he brilliantly devises a legal argument that allows the town to reject a proposed Walmart — alternate with aloof withdrawals. The erratic pattern reflects his guilt toward Hattie, only overcome at the end.

There is a chilling side-story about Ginny’s treatment of her handyman husband, Everett. After years of helping run her father’s farm and building them a new home, she brutally drives him out because he fails to join in her born-again beliefs, and an outlandish, tragicomic battle follows.

The Ginny-Everett feud, grippingly told, tends to wander somewhat from the main line of Hattie and the tremors that shake her willed American-style optimism. (The novel’s title voices its theme: the mutual tension between the United States as its own sufficient world and a world that questions the sufficiency.) Jen’s exuberant storytelling is not always able to resist an enticing side trip, and there are times when “World and Town” seems over-storied.

This and her tendency, here and elsewhere, to pack her conflicts with cheerful endings — a kind of narrative gift-wrapping — are the only flaws in an imaginatively questioning and shrewdly written novel of our times.

Richard Eder can be reached at richardgeder@gmail.com.

WORLD AND TOWN
By Gish Jen
Knopf, 400 pp., $26.95