In My Mother's House peels back the layers of a Chinese family in the Philippines. Mother and child stand as opposites: Le Bi wishing that her daughter becomes more Chinese in appearance and in manner, Nina accepting another culture and language as the emotional divide between them grows.
There are so many things about the Chinoy experience that this review may completely miss or misinterpret. But what the author deftly does is to include the readers into her protagonist's experiences, regardless of how much they know about Chinese-Filipinos. I found Nina's recollection of her middle-class upbringing an almost Proustian experience; I had to stop to savor my own memories that Ms Cham's writing would manage to dredge up. Key here is Nina herself, the self-proclaimed 'Rat' of her family, silent and lurking and painfully observant. The protagonist notes small details, like '... the image of words written on red sheets hanging on walls, remembering how as a child, she had sat among the pieces of paper fluttering in the wind from the ceiling fans (p42),' she writes. Or, describing an uncle, she notes his 'perpetually smiling mouth with dried saliva on is corners and a voice made raspy from years of tobacco-smoking (p72-73).' The narrative has a tendency to meander from present to past as if we're floating along Nina's stream of consciousness but she keeps the readers well-anchored, careful about which piece of her relationship with her mother Le Bi she will reveal in each chapter.
Ms Cham relies on metaphors and images to build the story. The first is the rat, after Nina's birth year and the physical parallels that Nina draws to this creature. At an early age, Nina has accepted that she is not her mother's favorite, preferring to stay in the background or in the company of her beloved Yaya Pasing, who has turned into the maternal ideal in her life. Another is the odor of her mother's house, stale and suffocating. Scent is a strong element of the book. It is a point of struggle for mother and daughter in the beginning of the story, but throughout the novel it symbolizes the insular lifestyle that Le Bi clings to and hints at the divisive turning point in their family's lives.
This is not the Chinese-Filipino equivalent of The Joy Luck Club. Far from that. It is not filled with obscure Chinese references and rituals from the old country. It is not festive or warm, though there are moments of light and release. It may start as a slow read, but keep to it. The conclusion is moving and forceful, as startling and as deceptive as a rat behind the walls.