Picks and Pans Review: Bone

updated 03/15/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/15/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Fae Myenne Ng

I have a whole different vocabulary of feeling in English than in Chinese, and not everything can be translated," announces Leila Fu, the American-born heroine/narrator of this haunting debut novel. Still, as eldest of three half-sisters in San Francisco's Chinatown, Leila must explain the facts of her sister Ona's suicide to their barely English-speaking parents; even more difficult, she must build a bridge to connect old-world Chinatown with the more Americanized life she is trying to lead.

Like Amy Tan's 1989 novel, The Joy Luck Club, this seemingly simple story focuses on the relationship between two generations of Chinese-American women. Mah Leong, Leila's mother, was abandoned by her first husband (Leila's father). She then married a ne'er-do-well sometime seaman and had an affair with the owner of a sweatshop. Ona's death, she figures, must be retribution for all her bad behavior. Though less superstitious, Leila, too, feels responsible.

Equally compelling are three other characters: Leon, Mah's second husband, whom Leila sees as both cause and effect of the family's woes; Nina, the third daughter, who has exiled herself to New York City; and Mason, Leila's Chinese-American husband with his own conflicts. Amazingly, in under 200 pages Ng (pronounced ing) draws them all fully, and explains the confusion of growing up a hyphenated American. (Hyperion, $19.95)

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