Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China by Hilary Spurling

What a fascinating book. When I first heard we would be reading the biography of Pearl Buck for our book group choice I was less than enamoured. I started reading and thought my doubts confirmed. By the time I reached chapter two I realised I was totally mistaken. Hilary Spurling has written an excellent portrait of this prolific and accomplished writer's life.

Pearl Buck was born in America in 1892 but was brought up on the breadline in China by an eccentric missionary father and long suffering mother. Pearl spoke Chinese, lived like her Chinese neighbours and thought of herself as one of them. She was highly intelligent but when she finally went to college in America she felt totally out of place and her peers thought her strange.

Married to an able mission agriculturalist his lack of empathy, vision, passion and appreciation for literature drove them apart. Buck turned to writing and it was her salvation. Her first novel, The Good Earth, caused a sensation when it was published in 1931. At that time little was known of the way of life of Chinese peasants and that the communist party did all it could to stifle literacy. The Chinese communist party did not want the raw side of life in China told and the middle class American audience was unwilling to hear it.

However, The Good Earth portrayed the Chinese people, for the first time, as individuals with passions, fears and unusual ancient habits and went on to become a best seller. Buck left her husband and as a result had to leave her beloved China, never to return. Her wish for independence and achievement combined with the need to provide for herself and her only daughter, who was retarded, drove her on and she wrote nearly forty novels as well as short stories and articles.

She eventually married her publisher with whom she had a passionate relationship in which they were intellectual equals. They adopted several children but, although she had a close relationship with her own mother, she was not naturally maternal and became an oddly distant mother. She seemed to have adopted the children as replacements for her siblings that died before she was born and the healthy children she could not herself have.

Battling alone, always an outsider, Buck became towards the end of her life increasing idiosyncratic and dogmatic, a strong and strange woman. Eventually she cut herself off, looked after by equally odd companions, and assumed the mantle of an ancient inscrutable Chinese woman she had admired as a young woman.

Buck was a woman who had struggled and suffered much in her life and this comes through in her fiction as does her real understanding and love of China and the Chinese. The Good Earth – her most successful novel – charts an interesting period in Chinese history and did more to dispel the discrimination that surrounded the Chinese in western society than any of the more usual channels. Hilary Spurling's biography Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China is an illuminating and really fascinating read.

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