Little Aunt Crane

Written by Esther Tyldesley (trans.) Geling Yan
Review by Sarah Bower

Following the defeat of Japan in 1945, sixteen-year-old Tatsuru flees the mass suicides of Japanese communities in Manchuria and is sold into slavery to a Chinese family who use her as a surrogate mother, to give birth to children on behalf of their son and his barren wife. Geling Yan’s novel is a family saga following three generations through the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution and into the calmer waters of the early 1980s. Through all this period, the ‘Jap Devil’ mother is concealed within the family but leaves her mark on it, raising children who speak a language combined of Chinese and Japanese, cooking Japanese dishes and observing Japanese customs of cleanliness and politeness as she struggles to preserve her own identity and history.

The passage of years cements a complex relationship between Tatsuru (now renamed Duohe), her ‘husband’ and his ‘first wife’, and Yan writes wonderfully about this. She has a subtle and sensitive understanding of the workings of the human heart, and makes these three ordinary yet extraordinary people and the children they raise the focus of her novel. The defining historical events of those years take place largely off-stage, impinging only indirectly on the family’s life, whose day-to-day struggles to sustain themselves and their unconventional relationships, and keep their great secret, offer a gripping, poignant and often very funny narrative. The two wives are both strong and memorable characters, who complement each other perfectly as they alternately fight and plot together to keep their precarious show on the road.

Although the translation does not always fall easily on the English ear, this is a terrific read and an enchanting revelation of ordinary lives in extraordinary times.