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Too Many Pinholes Let in Too Much Light

The Last Time I Saw Mother by Arlene J. Chai Ballantine Books, $22.00 340 pp.

By Sarah D. Kalloch

In the preface to The Last Time I Saw Mother, Arlene Chai writes, "Before I knew of the things I now record on these pages, I lived a life full of uncertainties. Perhaps you know of that feeling, when you are filled with little pinholes that show up in the light and you wait and wait for the answers that make you whole." According to the narrator, the answers are found within this story. However, there are too many pinholes in Chai's first novel, lending too much light and not enough structure.

The Last Time I Saw Mother is a story about identity that loses itself in the complex worlds of four different narrators. The book centers around Caridad, a woman of Chinese, Spanish and Philippine ancestry, and her search for her true roots, obscured by family secrets for over forty years. Her voice begins and ends the novel, but in between, her story is told through those of her mother Thelma, her aunt Emma and her cousin Ligaya. "After all," says Caridad, "do we not all belong in each other's stories?"

Unfortunately for Caridad (and Chai), her own story is simply lost among the histories of her family. The novel is only 340 pages long, and the print is large--there isn't enough room to properly treat each woman's complete life story, or even to tell Caridad's correctly.

Thelma, the strong matriarch, has had to deal with a severe mother-in-law, a cheating husband, sterility, medicine men and more. Each step in her growth is treated like a gigantic leap of mankind, then is pushed aside for yet another revelation. After a few years of childless marriage, for example, Thelma's mother-in-law becomes concerned and takes action, asking "the old man to come." After that summoning, there is a break in the text, as if an earth-shattering meeting, or story-changing event is about to take place. The next paragraph contains a description of the old man as a "cloud of gray," even elaborating on the kind of cloth his clothes are made of. The reader is set up to believe the old man will have an impact on the history of these women when in fact he is gone by the next page, never to be mentioned again, without having contributed more than a word to her life.

Aunt Emma has been through poverty, war, widowhood, hunger and impossible choices. She struggles with what to tell Caridad, saying, "When you take the cloth in your hand and pull at this loose thread, there is a danger more stitches will come loose. Telling the truth is like that, it is much like telling a lie-- one leads to another. And soon all the stitches unravel, and the hem falls free because you pulled at just one loose thread. How much can I tell her? When do I stop?"

Emma doesn't stop, recounting her life before, during and after the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines. War can often make for powerful literature, and indeed, the descriptions of the invasions are intense. Emma's family must flee to the hills and face bombing, even in what they thought was a safe haven. Innocent lives are lost, and promises of help from the U.S. are made and then delayed for three grueling years. The effect of the occupation on Manila and on the cultural identity of the Philippines should not be underemphasized, and yet in a way, it is in this book. The war is only described as part of the life of one of the four narrators: it is unfair to give such an important topic so little space.

Cousin Ligala's story is also included in Caridad's history, though it is hard to know why. Pressured by familial obligations to marry for money and not love, she lives a life of unfulfilled dreams. Yet even her story, as written, is unfulfilling. We meet the rich man she marries, but there are only a few sentences about the man she truly loves. Her life isn't fully developed, leaving the reader wanting to know more.

The story's strands do come together in a family reunion of sorts. At the end of the novel, the whole family, cousins, aunts, mothers uncles, fathers and stepmothers, all come together for a family portrait. Ironically, no one in the picture seems prepared: "all in mid-pose, some with smiles that look more like grimaces, some with mouths wide open, others with eyes shut." There are just too many faces, seen too briefly. The central story is marred by anecdotes that do not contribute to the reader's knowledge or understanding of how these women got to be where they are. Too many little pinholes let in too much light, and obscure what could be an interesting journey into awareness and acceptance between generations and cultures.

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