A Mystery’s Technical Mastery
The first sentence of a novel functions as a traffic light.
If the sentence is metaphorical, hints at a sweeping narrative, creates intellectual desire to know more, and is tightly constructed, with no unnecessary adjectives or dead-end phrases, then this is a solid green light. Proceed. Chances are exceedingly strong that every sentence in the novel will be good, written by an author who understands the power of a single word in constructing sentences enriching the narrative, setting tone, strengthening plot and pacing, and not wasting a second of the reader’s time with prattle.
The Family Chao: A Novel
By Lan Samantha Chang
W.W. Norton & Company
“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” is the deservedly famous first line of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. It may appear to be a throwaway line, but it portends a privilege, a paper-thin façade of noblesse oblige subsuming a deep pool of psychological distress. Mrs. Dalloway seeks to bring a small moment of natural and aesthetic beauty into an unpredictable and stressful scenario fraught with varying degrees of mental instability and, eventually, suicide.
“On top of everything, the cancer wing was Number 13,” thinks Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov in the first sentence of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward. As readers, we are left wondering what could be worse than cancer—“On top of everything” implying an involved backstory prompting Rusanov to have this thought while most of us would be focused on the stark diagnosis of cancer. “Number 13” suggests anything but a joyous future filled with mirth and wine.
In both Mrs. Dalloway and Cancer Ward, the novels explicate the foreshadowing of the intense, yet brief, first lines. An author, one who understands and is in command of his or her literary toolkit in crafting fiction, uses foreshadowing from the start of a story and through to the end to alert the reader that he or she must look beyond what a character perceives or what is superficially present in the moment. The author knows what is going to happen and is dropping subtextual hints.
“For thirty-five years, everyone supported Leo Chao’s restaurant,” begins Lan Samantha Chang in The Family Chao: A Novel. Immediately, we are left wondering if “everyone” was still or may have stopped supporting the restaurant and, if so, why? Note the tight, crisp prose, steady strokes on a literary canvas, by the talented Chang. The traffic light is green. Proceed.
Leo and Winnie Chao emigrated to America from China three and a half decades ago and settled in Haven, Wisconsin, to open a restaurant. Over the course of the next 10 years, they had three sons: Ming, Dagou and James. To anyone visiting the prospering restaurant, all appeared fine. It was a Chinese restaurant with delicious, authentic food served by a hard-working and silent family. The community supported and accepted them.
Chang—who is director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and award-winning author of the collection Hunger and the novels Inheritance and All is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost—further tempts us to continue our reading journey in the short first chapter. “Now, a year after the shame, the intemperate and scandalous events that began on a winter evening in Union Station, the community defends its thirty-five-year indifference to the Chao’s family troubles by saying, ‘No one could have believed that such good food was cooked by bad people.’”
Spoiler: Leo Chao is murdered, locked in the restaurant’s freezer in the basement after a grand community Christmas Eve dinner. Chang is like a party planner introducing characters who may have motive, moving them in and out of our view. They spark and bounce off one another, question, speculate, lurk in the shadows. In describing the homes in the less desirable area of town, Chang alludes to the Chao family and friends. “The colors are the same in the back as in the front, but the back sides reveal bulky additions, sheds, cellar doors, air-conditioning units, satellites, and laundry lines; they are the secret sides of the house.” Again, yes, foreshadowing.
“His old room and the old moon that would be full at noon. Soon, the noon moon. The noon courtroom,” writes Chang with a flourish. We bounce like a skipping stone across the surface of a still pond as we read the words, the repetition of “oo” from room to moon to noon. Throughout The Family Chao I was under the spell of a master wordsmith and storyteller. I was not reading sentences but was among the sentences within the world of Chang/Chao.
I’m sorry about my prattle over technique in fiction, but it is rare that a mystery is so well written, a page-turner, and a helluva lot of fun. I did not know who the murderer was until it was revealed in the final few pages. It was right in front of me from the start of The Family Chao.