Catherine Lim's controversial 1997 novel The Bondmaid introduced American readers to the exciting voice of Singapore's best-selling author. LIm's compelling novels fuse the elegance of Amy Tan with the authenticity of Jung Chang, creating a fascinating world with characters whose lives are determined by a heady mix of love, class, destiny, and the machinations of the gods.
The Teardrop Story woman is Mei Kwei, born in Malaya in 1934 and doubly cursed -- not only is she female, she also has a tiny teardrop mole in the corner of one eye: a sign of bad luck that presages disaster. Fate proves kinder to Mei Kwei who inherits her grandmother's extraordinary good looks and gift for storytelling. As she grows up, Mei Kwei must cope with the attention of the men who begin to encircle her, attracted by the intensity of her beauty and by her spirit. She runs from these men to a man who cannot love her back -- the charismatic Father Martin, a French Catholic missionary -- and the demands of the flesh and the s pirit come into fearful collision. Set in Malaya in the turbulent 1950s, this is an irresistible story of passion and obligation where no one is safe, least of all those watched by jealous men or exacting gods.
|Publisher:||Cavendish, Marshall Corporation|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)|
Read an Excerpt
When Mei Kwei was born, the midwife, seeing the despised slit between the tiny, quivering legs instead of the prized curl of flesh, shook her head and clucked her tongue. Crying as she came into the world, the baby girl might have been saying, `Tell them I'm sorry.'
The midwife laid the newborn on a pile of old sarongs folded to make a soft bed on the hard unmattressed one of the mother, and began to examine her carefully for harelip, club-foot, a supernumerary nipple, a ready-formed tooth, the sign of the devil. The double sin of being born female and deformed condemned an infant to instant death in the ancestral country. The midwife's mother, also a midwife who lived in a village in North China, had, in her time, disposed of such unfortunate female babies, usually by turning their faces into a tray filled with ash. That was the more merciful method. A woman who had given birth to a baby girl with bleached skin and hair had screamed, `Ghost child!' and abandoned her in the mud of a rice-field, only to tiptoe out later to find her still alive, the umbilical cord wrapped around her tiny body.
Here in the adopted country, fate was kinder. Ah Ban Soh's daughter, who was born with a sixth finger on her right hand, and Ah Kim Soh's daughter, who was born with a badly cleft upper lip, had been allowed to live and were even now getting ready to be married, a matchmaker having found willing husbands for them.
Mei Kwei was a perfectly formed baby. Her teardrop mole, close to her right eye, would be discovered only much later.
`Does he want to be told?' said the midwife, meaning the father.
Ah Oon Koh was in a coffee-shop down the road. He had gone there to escape the fuss of the birth and was now drinking one cup of coffee after another, slumped morosely in a chair in his singlet and pyjama trousers. Some hours before, he had seen the midwife getting ready a basin of steaming hot water and piles of rags and paper, and had immediately rushed out of the house, got on his bicycle and pedalled furiously away.
He remembered with much disgust, invariably expressed in a sharp snort and a violent ejection of spittle, the occasion, just three years ago, when he had been unlucky enough to come face to face with her as she emerged from the confinement room carrying a filled chamberpot. The hot fetid smells of afterbirth struck him in the face. Of all the shameful things that women could inflict on men, this was the worst. Later the midwife had tried to make amends by offering him a basin of cool clean water with a sprinkling of fresh flower petals to wash away the bad luck. But the harm was done already: soon afterwards he lost money in his charcoal business.
Still, it had been a boy, and the mother and the midwife had watched with some relief the look of gratification on his face when the newborn was put into his arms with the wrapping towel deliberately rolled up to the waist to show the small bud of power and promise. As he looked intently at the round, sleeping face, the bud slowly unwrinkled and stiffened to eject a silver spray that hit him in the face. He laughed loudly.
This time, it was only a girl.
`He has to be told, sooner or later,' said Ah Oon Soh bitterly. She had an abundance of long hair, which the thrashing throes of birth had cast in wild wet tangles upon her face and surrounding pillow, giving her an aspect of a ghost woman's beauty.
`Do you want to keep this?' The midwife, imperious and impatient as she snapped out one order after another during birth, became deferential after it, asking for instructions concerning the mother's wishes.
`What's the use?' Ah Oon Soh said dispiritedly, and the midwife threw the newly cut cord, glistening, wet, twisted, into the chamberpot on the floor; that of the son had been preserved in lucky red paper, tied with lucky red string.
Second Grandmother, who had been sitting in a chair all this while quietly fanning herself, said she would do it; Second Grandmother of the tiny bound feet that would surely be incapable of negotiating the potholes and bumps in the long stretch of road leading to the coffee-shop, where the father sat drinking.
`Someone has to do it,' she repeated grimly, and proceeded to unbutton the loose blue cotton blouse she was wearing for the finely starched white one used only for going out. She picked up her black umbrella from behind a door and was ready.
Big Older Brother who was three years old then, looked up from an empty cigarette tin in which he had been rattling some clay marbles, and cried to be taken too for he remembered the row of glass jars filled with sweets and biscuits in the coffee-shop. To emphasise the urgency of his wish, he began to howl and to stamp his feet on the hard earthen floor.
`Stop it,' the midwife said severely, `or the big red ants will get at your bird,' upon which he immediately gave a loud yelp and cupped it protectively with both hands.
The midwife and his mother laughed. The overloading of the upper half of his stout little body, with vest, shirt, bib and rubber teat hanging on a string around his neck, was unmatched with anything on the lower half, so that teasing adults looked upon his little swinging member as he ran or toddled and threatened it with ants, bugs, lizards and hungry, penis-chomping female ghosts. The exposure was less the mother's strategy for flaunting the fact of her child's maleness to the world than a simple expedient to reduce the daily amount of washing of children's clothes and hence to save on soap.
Big Older Brother was easily placated with a spoonful of the special confinement food, which the midwife put into a bowl and placed on the floor for him. He sat contentedly, bare-bottomed, on the cold earthen floor, picking up grains of steamed rice and shreds of fried pork with his small chubby fingers and yelling for more as soon as he saw that the bowl was empty.
Second Grandmother had never ventured out on such a long walk before. In her starched white blouse and black silky trousers, her well-oiled hair neatly combed into a precise bun at the back of her head, her feet smaller than a child's in their tiny, pointed shoes, replica of a bygone age, she attracted attention by the preposterous act of venturing out unescorted.
`Oh, Old Auntie, you will fall, you will hurt yourself.' In the ancestral country she could have hitched a ride on the stout back of a young man; here she was offered various vehicles -- a bicycle, a trishaw, a car -- all slowing down in solicitous enquiry and offer of assistance.
`No, thank you, I'm fine.' Second Grandmother continued to totter along bravely, acknowledging with a mere nod the greetings and the offers, determination of purpose written on her face, which still bore traces of a former beauty.
Having successfully negotiated a hole, a puddle and a stout branch that had fallen across the road, she grew braver and swung her umbrella energetically to left and right to ward off a swarm of buzzing insects, a sniffing dog, the rude laugh of a boy by the roadside pointing at the incredibly small, tightly bound feet. The coarse boy, to amuse his companions, all ragged and barefoot like himself, stood on his toes, hunched his shoulders, affected a demeanour of extreme female coyness and began to walk beside her with exaggeratedly small mincing steps.
`You are all impolite children. Didn't your mothers ever teach you manners?' scolded Second Grandmother. She launched into a tirade against the disrespectful behaviour of the young, jabbing the air angrily with her umbrella. The obnoxious boy, playing up to the titters of his companions, began to mimic her in a high-pitched voice, still walking mincingly and now striking the air delicately with an invisible umbrella.
`Go away!' cried Second Grandmother angrily.
`Go away!' echoed the boy, now fully launched upon the day's mischief of teasing old women, dogs and beggars, to escape the day's pain of want and hunger.
Second Grandmother lapsed into sullen muttering and decided to ignore the urchins and concentrate on her progress down the road.
She heard a man's voice say roughly, `Have you no respect?' and turned to see a trishawman, his gold teeth glinting in the afternoon sun, furiously pedalling his vehicle through the group of young miscreants, scattering them. He said in a kind voice to Second Grandmother, `Old Auntie, where are you going? Why are you by yourself?'
Her little bound feet, which had miraculously borne her down a long stretch of road, now crumbled under the weight of her mission, just when its accomplishment was in sight: she could already see the shop sign in large red and black characters. She sat down heavily on the road and sighed.
`Get in, Old Auntie,' the trishawman told her, `and I'll give you a ride to wherever you're going.' All the way to Lam Pin coffee-shop, he rang the trishaw bell happily, in self-testimony to his good deed.
`Everyone will see,' said Second Grandmother, with grim purpose, `that I will not apologise for the birth of a granddaughter.'
Glumly drinking his fourth cup of coffee, Ah Oon Koh ignored the small commotion that had arisen with the arrival of a trishaw, until he realised that the occupant who was causing the rumpus was his mother-in-law.
Sunk into the depths of the broken trishaw seat, Second Grandmother was having difficulty getting out; her umbrella, moreover, was stuck in the fender. The coffee-shop assistant, a young man ever attentive to the needs of the old, had rushed forward as soon as he saw her plight and immediately freed the umbrella. Now, with the help of the trishawman, he was trying to haul the old woman up and out of the vehicle. Second Grandmother gave an arm co-operatively to each of the tugging men, never minding the damage to her perfectly starched and ironed sleeves. The vehicle, used to the weight of an entire family, creaked and wobbled dangerously. A half-drunk Indian in a loincloth, with a dirty towel draped over his head, stood by watching and cackling with laughter; he lurched forward to help and was pushed aside. As soon as she was on her feet again, Second Grandmother haughtily stood up to her full height, pulled down the corners of her blouse, smoothed out the creases of her trousers and adjusted a tortoise pin on her bun, before walking purposefully to her son-in-law with her black umbrella.
The announcement of the birth of a daughter by one's mother-in-law in a public place, watched by at least a dozen people, was intolerable, to say the least, and Ah Oon Koh, to his dying day, never forgot the humiliation. His ears a hot red, his knuckles stark white as he gripped his coffee-cup with both hands, he stayed slumped in his chair, staring ahead, saying nothing.
`Never mind, Ah Oon Koh, a daughter can be as good as a son.'
`Mother and child are well, surely that's the most important thing --'
`Go home now, Ah Oon Koh --'
A waggish young man broke through the polite restraints to slap him boisterously on the back and tease him about the acquisition of a flat bun instead of a long cruller. Encouraged by a roar of laughter from a nearby table of coffee drinkers, the wag went on to expatiate on the superiority of stout cucumber over cleft melon, of long eel over moist, bivalved cockle so that by slow degrees, the woman in the long silk **cheongsam// on the wall calendar was divested of her garments and stood in compliant, spread nakedness before a row of searching male eyes. The man would have offered more ribald analogies from coarse eating and drinking if someone had not interposed by directing attention, once more, to Second Grandmother. `Ah Oon Koh, surely you don't mean to let your old mother-in-law walk all the way home.'
In the end, Ah Oon Koh had no choice but to offer his mother-in-law a ride on the pillion of his bicycle. `Wait,' said the thoughtful shop assistant, and ran to fetch a gunny sack, which he folded into a square and laid on the metal pillion to cushion the effects of a bumpy ride.
`You are very kind,' said Second Grandmother. In her mind she placed him and the trishawman well apart from the rowdy urchins and the surly son-in-law, who already stood in judgement before the Lightning God, ready to hurl his bolts at the unfilial and disrespectful.
In her last years when she grew demented and forgot many things, she remembered the travails of that afternoon and talked about them repeatedly, embellishing her descriptions with rich details so that the child Mei Kwei, squatting at her feet and looking up at her wide-eyed, would say excitedly, `Second Grandmother, tell me about the cow dung!' For the old woman would have it that her son-in-law deliberately shook his bicycle so hard that she fell off into a dung heap and ruined her best pair of shoes. Miniature peonies and butterflies, delicately worked in the finest silk threads of gold and red, sunk into vile excreta! A gentlewoman's badge of fine breeding and prestige dishonoured for ever! Her best pair, too, brought all the way from the ancestral country and meant for use on the day of her funeral, when she would be laid out in only her best clothes.
Second Grandmother said she cried till her eyes were swollen and she could not see any more. The child's eyes grew large with astonishment. But even she knew that this story was for hearing only, not believing, for the precious shoes were intact and safe at home, wrapped in a piece of soft red cloth in a corner of a tall cupboard. On several occasions, she had dragged a chair, stood on it and felt the precious bundle, tracing the firm edges of the grandmother's secret pride with her small fingers. Years later there was a rumour, spread by the swill woman as she went on her collecting rounds in the neighbourhood, that on the day of Second Grandmother's death when the shoes, surely the finest in Luping or anywhere in Malaya, were at last brought out and put on her feet, the corpse parted its lips in a smile. Some corpses kept their eyes wide open in restless waiting for a loved one to appear; in Second Grandmother's case, it was the feet that grew impatient to claim union with their magnificent peony and butterfly shoes.
`Tell me about the dead boys.' For Second Grandmother would have it that the urchins who had tormented her were severely punished: the sky opened, the Lightning God appeared in full majesty and chased them with his bolts.
`Here's one for making fun of an old woman's speech!' cried the god, and smote their tongues.
`Here's one for making fun of an old woman's gait!' cried the god, and smote their legs.
Then he flew back into the sky, leaving a row of blackened bodies by the roadside.
But her efforts were in vain. Upon arriving home, her son-in-law banged his bicycle several times on the ground to show his displeasure and went straight into his room.
In the following days, he resolutely refused to look at the new baby. He was not, of course, expected to go into the darkened confinement room, now reeking of the sour smells of a woman's unwashed, lactating body, but at least he could have looked at the child when the midwife brought her out, warmly wrapped in a sarong. There had been the one hopeful moment when he looked up from the newspaper he was reading and saw them in front of him. The midwife made a slight movement of bold expectancy, the sarong bundle gave out a small snuffling sound. But the father instantly repulsed the advance with an angry, snorting return to his newspaper.
`It's as he wishes,' Ah Oon Soh said bitterly, when the midwife returned to the room. 'Nobody can force him, that's all.'
Ah Oon Koh's aversion, over and above that dictated by custom, was due to the peculiar circumstances of his own birth and childhood many years before in a small village in China. Perhaps in its unrelenting vehemence, it was meant to redress the partiality -- how strange and unwarrantable! -- that his own father had shown. It was a partiality bordering on madness and was the talk of the village. The villagers said that it must have been an illness, in particular a very high fever, that had caused the man's brains to turn into porridge in his head. How else could one explain his preference for daughters? The crazy man beat his wife when she gave birth to a son. When a second son -- Ah Oon Koh -- was born, the father decided to bring him up as a girl. He was given a girl's name and girl's clothes. His ear-lobes were pierced for decorating with tiny silver ear-rings that the lunatic had bought from a pedlar, announcing with pride, `They are for my daughter!'
As a little pigtailed boy in a girl's dress, with cheeks sometimes rouged by the now completely insane man, he was laughed at by other children and teased by adults. `Ah Mui, Ah Mui, where is your little pancake? Let us see.' He watched his older brother, who was allowed to remain male, with a burning envy that narrowed his eyes and hardened his young heart. His father, holding him affectionately by the hand, took him for long walks in the village, and stopped for friends and neighbours to pat his cheek, tug his pigtails and exclaim over his beauty in the exaggerated tones of humouring a madman. He would look back, as soon as they had walked on, to see the group clustered together in uproarious laughter, lightly twirling forefinger against temple to demonstrate a madness beyond the power of gods to heal.
`What are you crying about?' his older brother would snarl. `You get all the good things,' these being tasty buns and roasted chestnuts that the mad father stuffed into the pockets of the girl clothes.
It was a shame that was all the greater for its suppression in those early confused years. On the day of his father's death, when he was nine years old, he tore the ornaments from his ear-lobes and flung them to the ground, casting off the shame for ever. He never forgave his father. About the time his mother was looking for a wife for him, he vowed that he would have no daughters and was secretly terrified by his dreams at night, in which the sombre grey mists of his future parted for him to see a long, detestable female line forming, and to hear the laugh of his hated dead father.
`Papa! Papa! Look at Little Sister!' Big Older Brother, the beloved and pampered one, could always be bribed with the delicious confinement food to help in the urgent task of securing the father's acknowledgement of the newborn's existence. He cooperated with exuberant energy, dragging his father by the hand to the low wooden bench outside the confinement room, where the child had been laid on its bedding of old sarongs, freshly bathed.
`Enough, enough,' the father said gruffly, broke free of the tugging hand and went back into his room.
Second Grandmother, reviewing an increasingly hopeless situation, said, `We'll wait for the First Month Celebration,' for whoever had heard of a father refusing to carry in his arms his child, girl or boy, on the happy completion of its first thirty days? Second Grandmother began to work hard towards the event, the despised little newborn girl now the centre of her lonely life, loneliest in her last years in the impenetrable shadows of her dementia. The grandeur of the First Month Celebration of the grocer Poon's daughter, who was carried out of the confinement room in full regalia of red satin clothes, red woollen cap, red boots and mittens deliberately peeled off at the right moment to show relatives and neighbours the gold rings on the baby fingers, nettled Second Grandmother into feverish activity to secure something of that glory for her own little granddaughter. For was she not even healthier and prettier than the Poon child and therefore entitled to a greater celebration of victory over the marauding evil spirits that had conceded defeat after the thirty days and slunk away in shame?
Second Grandmother affected a scornful indifference to the swill woman's breathless description of the Poon celebration, but she listened avidly to the details of the celebration food that the Poon family dispensed to neighbours: nothing had been wanting. But there could be no chicken curry or saffron rice or bean cakes to announce her little granddaughter's triumphant survival of the malignancy of both her father and the evil spirits. Second Grandmother did a quick mental assessment of existing resources and concluded that they could afford two dozen hard-boiled eggs, shells stained lucky bright red, for distribution to immediate neighbours.
My granddaughter is the most beautiful baby girl, she thought, and I will make sure that she wears appropriate celebration clothes when she is taken out to be shown to the neighbours. The swaddling clothes from the torn-up old sarongs should never be seen again.
So she came home the next afternoon, hot and panting, her black umbrella of little use against the scorching heat, her little feet bravely holding up from the arduous trip, only partly by trishaw, to the pawn-shop. `Here,' she had said, taking out of her blouse pocket a pair of jade ear-studs given her by a relative in the ancestral country, many years ago. For the first time in her life, her ear-lobes were without ornament, but now she had money to buy good red cloth, a child's silver anklet and the celebratory eggs. In the later years, when her mind wandered over past events and she spoke incessantly, she would scold her beautiful, strong-willed granddaughter into sheepish submission by reminding her of the enormous debts due for the dung-ruined silken shoes and for her precious ear-studs.
`I didn't ask you to do it, Second Grandmother,' the little girl would say petulantly.
`Ingratitude! Ingratitude!' the other would mutter, but still the old woman and young girl would come together in a natural gravitation of the lost and rejected.
`Smelly cunt,' said Second Grandmother, echoing the father who had spat out, not merely said, the words. `I want to show everyone you are no smelly cunt but the beautiful granddaughter of Lee Gek Neo!' For she herself had possessed that rare rich beauty that ought to be perpetuated in daughters and granddaughters. She had wept bitterly to see her firstborn, Ah Oon Soh, sallow and ugly, except for the abundant lustrous hair. Fortunately, the beauty had not disappeared down the line but merely skipped a generation, reappearing in a new flowering in the granddaughter.
A concubine raised to the position of Second Wife, subservient to First but wielding enough power over Third and Fourth, Second Grandmother attributed all the good fortune to her beauty. The luck ended, however, with the death of her husband. Immediately after the funeral, First Wife had unleashed the full extent of a resentment simmering over twenty years, and cleared the huge familial mansion, once and for all, of the old man's entire establishment of three secondary wives and two concubines.
The hurried departure with her small daughter, and no more than a bundle of clothes (Second Grandmother insisted, years later, that she had left behind a treasure trove of jade and gold ornaments that had been the gift of her husband), marked the beginning of a pathetic decline into poverty and obscurity. Living with a relative who was kind enough to take her and her child under his protection, she fed on the memories of past passion and glory, distilled into a pair of tiny shoes that had brought joy to an old man on his bed. In her last years, when only her granddaughter could break through the terrible shadows to reach the quivering bewilderment and despair, she recalled her beauty, and the special pleasure she gave her husband, swaying towards him like a flower on its stalk, with nothing on except her small silken doll's shoes, exactly as he wanted it. He would raise himself on his elbow to look at her, cackling with delight.
Ginseng. Rhino's horn. What were these compared to the power of tiny feet in doll's shoes, to enthral and heat up old blood?
Many years before, when she was a little girl, her mother had said to the footbinder, `Tighter! Tighter!', then turned to her to wipe the tears from her face and to promise, `My little Gek Neo, when you grow up, you will be beautiful and please your husband.' Her mother must have visualised exactly this supreme reward for her sacrifice and pain. For even after her husband had taken a third, then a fourth wife, Lee Gek Neo remained his favourite.
`Come,' he would say, putting a whole length of room between themselves, for maximal feasting on the sight of the young, naked white body in small pink satin shoes swaying towards him.
`Don't expect me to use that thing,' said Second Grandmother haughtily, when her daughter, still weak from the birth, pointed to the Singer sewing-machine, kept in a corner of the confinement room. Manual, not foot pedal, it could be easily used by her to make the celebration clothes on which she was now so intent. But she trusted only her fingers, deft despite the years, and over a week, working assiduously in the light of a kerosene lamp in the evenings, produced a magnificent set of baby apparel, shirt, trousers, cap, mittens and socks, so finely sewn that they would survive years of use, bleached to a dull pink but with every stitch intact. Long after Second Grandmother's death, in that time of desperation and sadness when Mei Kwei had to decide which possessions she would take with her in flight, she chose the First Month Celebration clothes.
`See how pretty she is!'
`Such large eyes, such abundant hair!'
`She's indeed the prettiest baby girl!'
The compliments of the neighbours gradually subsided in their extravagance, muted by the awareness that the ever present, ever vigilant evil spirits could be provoked into a new wave of jealousy and malignant power. The swill woman whispered urgently, `Has her father seen her yet?' to which Ah Oon Soh replied with bitter despondence, `No, and perhaps never will.'
`You only complain, you never do anything for your daughter,' Second Grandmother said reproachfully. Clearing her throat, she addressed the sleeping newborn loudly for the sole benefit of the father who was in his room. 'So you are a despised smelly cunt, are you? So you come into the world unwanted? Never mind, have no fear. Those who are most despised will grow up to be most successful!' Whether a prediction or a wish, she invested it with the fervour and perfume of a prayer, as she lit a fragrant joss-stick and went outside to stand it in an urn on an altar consecrated to no god or goddess in particular but to any benign power that happened to be passing by and was not disinclined to use some of that power to help the meek and despairing of the earth.
No more, no more, thought Ah Oon Koh, and he meant that he would take no more of the old woman's malice. She had not stopped insulting him since that humiliating day in the coffee-shop, lacing the taste of his food and drink, the very quality of his dreams at night, with the acidity of her tongue. Her rancour penetrated the thin plank walls of his room, making sleep impossible.
He would leave his room and flounce out of the house, get on his bicycle and pedal away, no longer to the coffee-shop, where the humiliating incident was recounted in his hearing, but to a small noodles stall in the market-place where the owner allowed him to sit as long as he liked. In the fragrant smell of steaming noodles and prawn soup, he smoked and plotted. He would not talk to women but he could hurt them. There was no question of chasing his mother-in-law out of the house: the old spiteful one was sure to make a scene and stand bare-headed in pouring rain calling upon the Lightning God or the Thunder God to witness her plight and thus have the neighbours rallying round her in compassion.
`None of our business, none of our business,' they would say, and cast sidelong glances of dark, silent reproach at him.
There would be another way of punishing her.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Catherine Lim's elegant and flowery flow of language is what I love of her books. She goes into rich, elaborate details and paints a vibrant picture of Malaya of the old days. Her stories never fail to weave in a subtle commentary on the society, religion and customs, and her characters are refreshingly realistic and thankfully imperfect. They all have their selfish, cruel and self-centered sides as they battle with their inner demons - in other words, they are human, not crafted to please the public. The only complaint is of the relationship between Mei Kwei and Father Martin, which was somewhat...flat. They had no chemistry whatsoever. Frankly, I preferred the husband she did not love - the wealthy but melancholy Austin Tong. Father Martin's wishy-washiness in matters of the heart annoyed me thoroughly. But that's subjective, I suppose. Fortunately, the book is more than saved by Catherine Lim's smooth, elegant prose.
With The Teardop Story Woman, a starkly vivid canvas of 1934 Malayan life, Catherine Lim has produced an affecting yet chilling tale. Her richly embroidered glimpses into a hitherto little known culture fascinate, that society's misogynism appalls. This unlikely mix has resulted in an absorbing, substantive novel. While Mei Kwei, the heroine, is predictably beautiful, and Father Francois Martin, the hero, is predictably unavailable, the munificence of telling detail and artfully rendered description transcend a slender plot line. Damned into the world from the day of her birth because of a 'despised slit between the tiny, quivering legs instead of the prized curl of flesh.' Mei Kwei might have been bartered for whiskey, coffee powder, and cotton cloth had it not been for the intervention of Big Older Brother who screamed his protest. Three years her senior, he feeds her tidbits from his bowl, protects her from neighboring bullies, and later comes to her bed promising not to hurt her for he 'knew the precise limits of his lust; she would still be passed on intact to her husband.' Detested by her father and ignored by her mother, Mei Kwei turns to Second Grandmother, a former concubine with tiny bound feet who wears shoes the size of a doll's. The aged woman comforts Mei Kwei with stories, transporting the child into a privileged world she can scarcely imagine - sharp contrast to their impoverished existence. Thankfully, the young girl is almost preternaturally resilient, markedly resourceful, 'Learning from an early age that females were a dependent class, living on surplus, she first grew timid, then canny....' She also longs for an education, gazing with hungry eyes through classroom windows. Impressed by Mei Kwei's intellectual promise, Sister St. Elizabeth persuades the girl's father, Ah Oon Koh, to let the child attend school. Mei Kwei's happiness in learning is short lived as the opium addicted Ah Oon Koh's soon becomes infuriated by his daughter's exposure to a foreign culture, her growing familiarity with a repugnant tongue. After he physically takes her from St. Margaret's convent school, a disheartened Mei Kwei burns her treasured exercise books. At her family's behest Mei Kwei agrees to see Old Yoong, one of the wealthiest men in Penang, who delights in exploring her face with his 'hot dry mouth.' But Mei Kwei is unable to tolerate the older man's attentions. Eventually, she accepts the proposal of Austin Tong, a Catholic convert and wealthy restauranteur. In return for her promise of marriage Austin lavishes her family with gifts and employs the irresponsible Big Older Brother. As Austin's wife she is able to care for her family, yet she continues to dream of the white missionary, Father Martin. She has made her bargain, but learns there is an even higher price to pay. Yet, it is a price that brings Father Martin back into her life one last time. Vivid scenes of life in Luping, Malaya some sixty years ago, such as women shearing their hair then binding their breasts to discourage marauding Japanese soldiers, the presenting of offerings - oranges and joss-sticks - to placate the Kek Lok temple gods, aromas of herbals teas, and odors of the marketplace are all presented in such lucid detail that scenes spring to vibrant life. Catherine Lim paints remarkable word pictures. Her portraits of the Tick Tock man, 'a Chinese itinerant hawker pushing his food cart with one hand and knocking wooden clappers with the other,' and Pig Auntie who raised swine yet 'took great care to keep her fine eyebrows plucked into two delicate arches' are noteworthy. Placed against the backdrop of clashing cultures and mixed blood, all of Ms. Lim's characters enhance her fastidiously etched Malayan mural. The Teardrop Story Woman offers an artful view of another time in an intriguingly distant place.