An impressive debut novel about a young Chinese-American woman's mental breakdown and her subsequent battle for recovery, resulting from cultural estrangement and a sexually abusive father.
Midway through this accomplished first novel, we learn that there's an old Chinese folk tale about an evil god called the Monkey King. He has a special pole -- the primary instrument of his mischief-making -- that he can "make small to carry, big to hit people with." As it happens, Monkey King is also the name assumed by the narrator's father in the middle of the night, when he comes to his daughter's bed to force himself on her. This is where you start thinking: Please, not another Dad's-magic-pole story. But Chao succeeds with a difficult subject; she has taken a topic that nowadays veers dangerously close to cliché and written a well-crafted and engaging story.
Monkey King begins when Sally Wang, the deeply troubled 27-year-old narrator, is on her way to a psychiatric hospital following a botched suicide attempt. In family therapy, she's eager to discuss her history of sexual abuse, to exorcise her monstrous memories. Her mother, however (who knew of the late-night violations), dismisses Sally's accusations as lies. Herein lies the book's essential disjunction: Sally is Chinese-American (emphasis on the American); her parents are Chinese -- and the ways in which these characters pursue and deal with self-knowledge are sharply divided along cultural lines. Therapy appears to help Sally, as does a divorce from an unhappy marriage. Her mother -- who ought to consider both -- scorns these choices as breaches of Confucian law, signs of failure.
Inasmuch as this novel is about a desperate young woman trying to make peace with her traumatic past, it is also about the chasm that can separate first-generation immigrants from their children. Throughout, members of the extended Wang family weave in and out of the narrative, principally to show how assimilation can be managed in highly individualized ways. Sally's parents -- her father, particularly -- are the only characters for whom this is impossible, and it is their children who suffer.
As tragic as all this sounds, one's sympathy for Sally is tempered with disbelief. Her attempt to tie up her life in a satisfying bow is almost unbearably naive: "Family was fatal but they created you after all. Who would I be if it hadn't been for Monkey King, if I didn't have his breath and bones and blood, if he hadn't made his mark on me?" The answer, I can only surmise, is a much happier person. -- Salon