Book Review: Petals from the Sky
Title: Petals from the Sky
Author: Mingmei Yip
Publisher: Kensington Books
The book, set in China, Hong Kong, Paris and New York doesn’t waste time.
The first twenty or so pages tell readers about 30 year-old Du Meng Ning, who shocks her mother with the intention to become a Buddhist nun; how naughty boys pushed her into a well when she was young; how she saved a few francs doing odd jobs in Paris while she was a student at the Sorbonne to finance the Buddhist retreat in Hong Kong; how she meets Michael Fuller an American doctor; how she was influenced by a statue called Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy and financial problems facing Buddhist temples such as the Fragrant Spirit Temple in Hong Kong.
There’s more to the book but I will throw caution to the wind and maintain that it is a calligraphy about three women and Buddhism.
- ·The beautiful Yi Kong, who became a nun at eighteen and her determination to preserve vanishing Buddhist statues, incense holders, paintings and other artwork that come with the religion. She wants Meng Ning to be a Buddhist nun and likes saying, “When are you coming to play with us?”
- ·Meng Ning, who goes to France for her Ph.D. while she decides whether she wants to play with Yi Kong or not.
- ·Dai Nam, a former nun Meng Ning meets at the Sorbonne. Dai Nam’s father hated her because she is a girl and also blamed her for the accidental drowning of her little brother. She also has a long scar on her face she got when a six year-old neighbour’s son cut her with a piece of broken glass for no reason at all.
The three women’s calligraphy has broad and small strokes of Chinese and Buddhist practices such as brewing tea, being vegan, reciting sutras, Beijing Opera, Shaolin martial arts, and how Buddhists say things, idioms if you will.
The author makes constant reference to shaved heads. Why do Buddhist nuns and monks have round patches that look like dimes on their heads? The book explains all that.
Yi Kong cut her hair because vanity has no place in someone who chooses the Buddhist religious order. The patches are the result of incense used on their heads to ensure that no hair grows again. Readers who have watched Kung Fu movies know those dime-like patches.
Choosing Book Titles
One wonders about the title after reading the book. It is only the author and publisher that know why the title is Petals from the Sky because The Empty Gate would have been a perfect title. You see, Meng Ning’s mother believes that becoming a nun is like entering an empty gate.
The Hong Kong retreat is important to the story for many reasons. It is where Meng Ning meets Michael Fuller, the American doctor interested in Buddhism. The chemistry between the two sees Meng Ning changing gears because initially, she was quite determined about being a nun.
“I wanted to be like Yi Kong, to be free of men’s crushing power, to attain spirituality, to control my own life and destiny, and most important of all, to push away the ordinary so as to live the life of a poet, a mystic, a goddess.” P. 24.
Later on in the book she says, “I didn’t want to lose Yi Kong’s friendship, nor Michael’s love. I wanted both the fish and the bear’s paws.” Page 225.
The retreat is also an introduction to the issue of fund-raising for religious institutions. Should they take dollars from anybody? This becomes a dilemma for Meng Ning because she has always equated Yi Kong with spirituality, intense spirituality.
She therefore becomes disappointed when she realises that Yi Kong worries about money to keep the Golden Lotus Temple running and to preserve treasures in mainland China associated with Buddhism.
The book reads like a chorus. There are certain terms like Guan Yi, shifu, sutra, qi, or gweilo the author repeats so that the reader can grasp their significance, especially someone not familiar with Buddhism.
The story of the three women is the book’s substance, solid as a rock, and would have kept the reader hypnotised without the imposition of the Michael Fuller character.
It is a reminder that sometimes publishers force things on authors. This is not the first book I’ve read, where an American falls in love with an Asian heroine and ‘saves’ her from her culture.
Petals from the Sky cannot be read once, because issues raised by the book linger on the reader’s mind long after THE END.