Bone (1993) by Fae Myenne Ng
I was first introduced to Ng's work several years ago when I was a teaching assistant for a course on Modern American Literature. Not knowing what to expect, I dove into it without any pesky previous associations or expectations.
Bone is a beautiful elegy in novel-form, where the narrator (Leila) continuously circles around the main event--her half-sister Ona's suicide--without ever actually bringing it into the narrative itself. Ng compounds our remove from the suicide by having her narrator tell her family's story "backwards," beginning with the most recent events and then moving back into the past (although she often jumps between the two). I was reminded of the film Memento, another work that tells a story in this way. Reverse-chronological order is disorienting, of course, but also fascinating in the ways in which it bends time and memory, inviting us to view a life or history not as something strictly linear, but as a kaleidoscope of shifting events and images.
And yet, you could also say that it's not so much a story unfolding backwards as it is a story being dug up from the ground, like bones or fossils. The further into the novel we read, the further back into Leila's family's past we go, and the deeper the insight we get into why the Leong family is the way it is and why Ona committed suicide.
In this her debut novel, Ng tells the story of a Chinese-American family struggling to figure out how to balance the past (China) with the present (California). In this way, Bone is very much like Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky (see my previous Random Recommendation) and Zadie Smith's White Teeth in that all focus on what it means to "assimilate" while holding on to one's past and traditions. The three daughters in Bone have grown up in California and know nothing of China first-hand, but their parents, neighbors, and family stories are all Chinese. Their belief that they must choose which culture to embrace, amidst the pressures of their American present, becomes a major source of anxiety and rebellious anger, especially for Ona.
When it was my turn to teach a survey course on American literature a few years after I read Bone, that novel was one of the first I chose for my syllabus. Its unique form, controlled and lyrical narrative voice, and timeless exploration of identity and family made it perfect for a course on what we mean when we talk about "American literature."