‘World and Town’
Gish Jen, “World and Town”
Random House, Inc
2010, 400 pages, hardcover, $27
Riverlake, a picturesque New England town in Gish Jen’s new novel “World and Town,” is undergoing change. With apple trees bearing fruit in the fall and snow falling heavily during winter, Riverlake has become accustomed to a slow and seasonal progression. But within the last few years, this quaint town has opened its arms to newly widowed women and families from all parts of the world. The community is changing in more ways than population dynamics; with future plans for the construction of a mega store like Walmart and an obtrusive cell phone tower, the citizens of Riverlake, both new and old, are concerned that their pastoral settlement might lose its small town charm.
Against this setting, Jen introduces readers to the protagonist of “World and Town.” Although Jen’s narrative voice roves, Hattie remains the story’s foundation. Hattie, an elderly Chinese-American with a background in the sciences, possesses a different heritage from most of the citizens in Riverlake. Hattie’s mother was an American missionary to China, but instead of preaching, Hattie’s mother fell in love. She married a Chinese man whose family traces its ancestry back to Confucius, and they had a daughter together—a little girl who always struggled to determine where her true home was. But Hattie’s parents and childhood are long gone when the novel opens. Instead the reader is introduced to Hattie a few years after an even more catastrophic loss; within a span of twelve months, the 68-year-old woman’s husband and best friend succumb to cancer. After burying her two closest companions, Hattie attempts to begin life anew in the small town of Riverlake. Although she has been living in America for over fifty years, Hattie still feels like a stranger, a feeling exacerbated by her isolation after losing such close loved ones. Moving to Riverlake offers Hattie the ability to start fresh, but she realizes that the memory of her loved ones—her husband, her best friend, her long-ago buried parents—will continue to make her days feel hollow, no matter where she lays her head.
From the opening chapter of the novel, Jen makes apparent her interest in geographic location. Hattie’s younger, Chinese relatives send her imploring emails and letters, asking her for permission to transfer her parent’s bones buried in America back to the ancestral graveyard in China. These cousins believe that Hattie’s parents are not at rest because of the absence of their bones. A host of problems is attributed to their displacement, and although Hattie refuses to believe the claims of her distant cousins, their pleas do not end. She finds her relatives’ superstitions to be annoying and anachronistic. After all, as a high school science teacher, Hattie has found no empirical evidence for the claims her cousins make.
Instead, Hattie’s own experience seems to stand in direct contrast to her cousins’ beliefs; to Hattie, geographical location matters little to someone who has never felt entirely at home. As Hattie sits in her house and looks out at land that is far different from the place she was born, she finds a measure of peace in the quiet mornings and evenings of Riverlake. But despite these feelings of contentment, Hattie makes apparent that her heart has found no true resting place.
Rather than worry about the problems and complications attributed to the dislocation of her parent’s remains, Hattie becomes involved with a freshly arrived immigrant family that has settled in a small trailer adjacent to Hattie’s own plot of land. She welcomes these Cambodian refugees to her town, but her loneliness spurs unhealthy obsession; she spies on them during the day and witnesses several scenes of disturbing familial relations. As a former teacher, Hattie’s heart is drawn to the young inhabitants of the trailer, specifically a fifteen-year-old girl named Sophy, who gradually reveals the dark history of her family.
Sophy’s parents, Chung and Mum, both lost spouses during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. After connecting in a refugee camp and moving to America, Chung and Mum have struggled to raise their family in a foreign environment. Hattie relates to the difficulties of assimilation, but since she arrived in America as a child, the parental difficulties that Chung and Mum face are different from her own immigration experience. Gangs entrap their oldest adopted son, while the younger girls rebel against the strict rules imposed on them. When the family arrives in Riverlake, Sophy has just returned to her family after living in foster care. The dysfunction within this Cambodian family is evident from the moment that Hattie meets them; the father has been deeply scarred by the violence he suffered in Cambodia and struggles to integrate into mainstream American society. Jen repeatedly places Chung outside, a lone figure in a stark and cold landscape, which both highlights his isolation and emphasizes the difference between his new home and his birthplace.
The contrast between Asia and New England can be felt on numerous levels. Not only do the winter months bring a harsh New England cold, but also the religion and philosophy of the East is set up against the skepticism of the West. Hattie is persistently confronted with the Buddhist beliefs of her Chinese family. The requests for her parents’ bones never abate; her relatives maintain a strident belief in the importance of the burial ritual. Similarly, Mum and Chung stubbornly cling to Cambodian traditions and values. No matter how far Hattie travels, it seems like she cannot escape from her cultural heritage. But while Hattie attempts to reject some of these Eastern beliefs, she also finds danger in Christian fanaticism. In her empirically trained mind, neither belief system offers people the tools needed to cope with reality. She feels powerless when Sophy begins to be swayed by an evangelical church in Riverlake. Again, the theme of being torn between two cultures pervades “World and Town.” Hattie’s rationalism ultimately must be reconciled with the superstitions of both cultures as she seeks to create and sustain relationships with those that she loves.
“World and Town” offers pictures of dark domestic environments and the loneliness of old age; it addresses issues like place, culture, and religion from a variety of perspectives—old and young, foreigner and native. Jen infuses her work with subtle humor while still addressing these pressing philosophical concerns. The importance of landscape is felt in both the geographical and spiritual realms; Hattie must determine where her parent’s bones belong and where her own soul rests. As Jen writes in the prologue, “What Hattie sees, when she looks in the mirror, are her parents’ youth and hope, even as she feels the pull of all they pushed away. For what has there been to replace that old world, with its rituals and certitudes, its guideposts and goalposts? Where will Hattie be buried, when her day comes?” Gish Jen’s fluid point of view allows the reader to struggle along with these characters as they attempt to make sense of their inner and outer worlds. At the end of the novel, the reader is left satisfied with the answers given and the questions that remain.
Monet Moutrie attends Texas State University where she is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing. She is a contributor to the social-justice blog Isak, and she maintains her own blog, Anecdotes and Apple Cores.