In her book “Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter,” Adeline Yen Mah returns to her roots just as the old Chinese proverb foretells. She tells the riveting story of growing up ensnared in a rich and dysfunctional Hong Kong family, while also giving a fascinating chronicle of twentieth-century Chinese history.
Mah tells a Chinese Cinderella story in which she survives the pain of her childhood only with the friendship of one of her older brothers, Edgar, and the unconditional love and support of her father’s sister Aunt Baba, a kind of fairy godmother figure to Adeline.
After her mother died shortly after her birth, marking Adeline as bad luck, her father married a young, beautiful, half-Caucasian woman whom the children called “Niang,” an alternate word in Chinese for mother, and who quickly became as wicked as any stepmother in a fairy tale. She held Adeline’s father in thrall as she neglected and emotionally, verbally and physically abused Adeline and her four other stepchildren.
Perhaps the cruelest act committed by Niang was putting Adeline in almost complete social isolation. She created divides among her stepchildren by favoring some above the others and encouraging them to treat their siblings badly. She even forbade Adeline from making friends with children from outside the family.
In perhaps the most shockingly unfair occurrence in the memoir, after Adeline was elected class president at her primary school and her friends from school came to her house with gifts, Niang beat Adeline and forced her to send her friends away. Her father forced her to open the gifts and throw them away.
Niang also ordered that Adeline receive only the thinnest of gruels for her dinner, refused to give her pocket money that the other children received and didn’t provide Adeline a ride to school like the other children, even though the walk was long and arduous.
Aunt Baba protected and cared for Adeline as best as she could within Niang’s restrictions, slipping her pocket money and constantly praising Adeline’s intelligence and success in school, which she saw as Adeline’s escape route from the family.
Although the injustices committed against Adeline alternately made my blood boil and made me tear up, her Aunt Baba’s behavior was a touching reminder that often all children and people in general need to survive and find happiness is just one person who loves, supports and believes in them. In the midst of so much hatred and suffering, Aunt Baba was a shining example of a pure, intimate family relationship.
This book will certainly resonate with anyone who has survived hardship due to a loving relationship or has grown up in a dysfunctional family. Adeline’s experience is at once universal and grippingly particular; anyone could enjoy reading this book.
“Falling Leaves” is one of the finest memoirs that I’ve ever read, with both a completely engaging narrative and elegant prose that never wastes a word. Out of the tragic roots of her childhood, Mah has created a work of art as beautiful as a falling autumn leaf.