A novel by Nina Romano
Paperback, 272 pages, Turner Publishing, ISBN 1630269077, Series: Wayfarer Trilogy #1
Set in China in the 1800’s, during the upheavals of the Boxer rebellions, South Florida writer Nina Romano’s first novel, The Secret Language of Women, is a stunning debut. A love story filled with dazzling historical details, the novel follows the ill-fated relationship between Zohu Bin Lian, a Eurasian healer, and Giacomo Scimenti, a sailor and a cook onboard an Italian Navy ship.
Lian and Giacomo meet by chance: Lian’s father, a well-reputed Swiss doctor married to a Chinese woman, raises his daughter Lian in the European fashion, forbidding the brutal feet binding that would be the fate of many Chinese girls of her time, and taking her under his wing as an apprentice for the healing arts. When her father is called to the court of the Dowager Empress Cixi, Lian makes an impression, not only on the Empress, for her remarkable healing skills, but also on the young and carefree Giacomo, a sailor serving as an honor guard for the Italian ambassador, for Lian’s unusual beauty and graceful manners.
Their love is instant and lasting, to the surprise of both Lian and Giacomo, who enter their relationship wide-eyed and aware that a world so torn by cultural and racial prejudices has no room for them.
Giacomo’s and Lian’s affair is as tender as it is tortured, and the couple’s often doomed attempts to protect their relationship is at the heart of what moves the plot. However, what infuses the novel with originality and tension is Lian’s personal struggle to reconcile the opposite forces that rule her own identity as a Eurasian young woman, soon to be orphaned by father and caught between two seemingly irreconcilable worlds. Her European father trains her in the art of medicine, expecting of Lian the kind of self-sufficiency that would never be afforded other Chinese women, but Lian must also live in the world that surrounds her, a world that binds her with onerous responsibilities and locks her in a pre-arranged marriage so loveless and rigid that it may as well be indentured servitude.
Lian struggles with this duality. Her public persona is Chinese: she knows how to act humbly in the presence of her superiors and how to assuage even the unreasonable demands of her promised husband, but she is invariably drawn to a clandestine affair with Giacomo, whose ship duties and Italian nationality make him as unavailable to her as the most recondite fantasy.
Soon Lian is separated from Giacomo, and for much of the novel, the two lovers chase after one another, he skirting and often barely surviving the dangers of the Boxer rebellion, and she attempting to protect herself and her daughter from her abusive husband Lu, and struggling to gain a costly independence. But if Giacomo is the stranger in China, Lian is the one who most experiences estrangement — from her fellow Chinese people as much as from the Italian foreigners who at times thwart Giacomo’s and Lian’s attempts to reconnect.
The secret language of women of the title is Nushu, a calligraphy taught only to women in China, one of the few venues for expression allowed them and kept beyond the controlling reach of men, who do not know how to read it. It is in this language that Lian chronicles her long journey from social bondage through her pre-arranged marriage with Lu, to her eventual freedom and emancipation as a fully realized, self-sufficient, spiritually fulfilled human being. But the journey is fraught with trials and hardships that often threaten to break Lian, as she fights not only the hostile social world surrounding her, but also her own divided feelings towards the two opposing cultures to which she belongs. The cost of her triumph is high, and tragedy marries victory in this detailed and moving epic.
One poignant moment in the story shows Ya Chen, Lian’s love child with Giacomo, describing with contempt “the foreign devils” with whom her mother is conversing, and upon whom Lian must rely for work and protection. Ya Chen seems unaware that her own mother is also part foreign, but Lian does not fail to react to her child’s outburst with both guilt and despair, understanding that the cultural and social attitudes that marginalize Lian will invariably haunt her daughter as well.
The Secret Language of Women is Lian’s struggle to find a world where she can belong, where her two identities can merge and co-exist harmoniously. Lian’s epic journey across a war-torn China are meticulously reflected in her own divided feelings about who she is. Her idealization of the feet binding of other women is emblematic of her own misunderstanding and confusion about her role in the world she lives in, a world she has inherited in spite of her father’s best intentions, and in spite of Lian’s own attraction to her European side, most genuinely expressed through her love for Giacomo.
Where the novel most succeeds is in detailing the cultural subtleties of China, and in bringing alive through vivid, sweeping details the turmoil of the political shifts and the richness of the history, as well as the struggle of the individuals caught in its whirlwind. Like all first novels, this one has some imperfections: Giacomo’s and Lian’s search for each other is tenderly rendered and moving, yet at times the novel seems to falter out of rhythm, occasionally dwelling a tad too long on the inevitable with unsurprising turns. Giacomo’s meditations on his love for Lian feel late in places, although the novel makes up for it with rich and vivid details of the character’s native lands and his earlier history.
Ultimately, The Secret Language of Women is visionary, ambitious, and lyrically written. One comes to the end of it feeling as though she has traveled through a time machine, into a world so different, so vivid and real as to linger in the mind long after turning the last page.