I already knew some of Adeline Yen Mah’s story because I used to have a copy of Chinese Cinderella, her book for children. In that memoir, she describes her unhappy childhood as an unwanted daughter. Falling Leaves includes the rest of her life, almost until the book’s publication in 1997.
Adeline is considered to bring bad luck because her mother died after giving birth. Even worse, as a girl, she’s not valued by most of her family. Emotionally and verbally abused, neglected, bullied and ordered around, her home life is an anxious hell. Her stepmother (Jeanne, known as Niang) is a cruel and manipulative woman who has total control over the family, fostering rivalries between the siblings and not allowing anyone to be kind to Adeline. The book revolves around the effect of this on the family dynamics and on Adeline’s wellbeing. Respect and compassion for her elders ensures that Adeline is dominated by the wishes of Father and Niang until the end. Not once does she say or do anything unkind to them, even despite their treatment of her.
I found this book a compelling read and admired the author’s skill at weaving her personal and family stories with the 20th century history of China. She takes us on an emotionally engaging journey through times of despair and sweetness. I like her use of proverbs, which give a sense of the philosophy and culture of Chinese society. There was never a dull moment in this memoir. It left me with a feeling of sadness and loss, but also of peace – I sensed that by telling her story, Adeline was able to accept the past and realise that how her family treated her was not her fault. She was not an abomination, she was just a little girl who wanted to be loved.
It was also fascinating to learn more about Chinese history and also the experience of leaving the country to study and work in Britain and America. I would compare the book to Wild Swans by Jung Chang (which was published a few years earlier) but it’s not as harrowing or thorough in its scope of history. Chang’s book is banned in China, but I’m not sure if Yen Mah’s is – although her criticism of the Chinese government can be inferred by the reader, it can also be interpreted as a straightforward narrative.
This book is one of the best memoirs I’ve read.