Picks and Pans Review: Monkey King

updated 02/24/1997 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/24/1997 01:00AM

by Patricia Chao

The Monkey King of Chinese lore is a chronically unhappy god who stirs trouble with "a pole that he can make small to carry, big to hit people with." For Chinese-American artist Sally Wang, 28, he is the immigrant father who abused her sexually as a child and now ravages her emotionally from the grave.

As this elegant first novel opens, Sally is struggling back from a suicide attempt, her career, marriage and mind all in dangerous disarray. No longer able to outrun her past, she is forced to confront both the memory of her father's incest and her family's continuing refusal to acknowledge it. In time, Sally comes to see that she too has conspired in the silence by donning a veneer of sweet sincerity that leads "from my head, not from my heart." When finally able to renounce her father's cruelest legacy, a certainty that "happiness precedes loss," she is also able to embrace life.

Chao, a writing instructor at Sarah Lawrence College, has created a vivid cast of female characters who breathe fresh insight into the lonely horrors of incest and depression. Though the story, which unfolds both forward and backward in time, is at points too elliptical, the pace is quick, the writing artful. Readers will hope to hear from Chao again. (HarperCollins, $24)

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