The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds by Selina Siak Chin Yoke (4 Stars)


Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for an advance copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Chye Hoon narrates the story of her life (born in 1878) with perspective from her Malayan-Chinese upbringing.  Chye Hoon’s fate is not one she had ever imagined, but nonetheless she survives widowhood and raises 10 children on her own by her strength and inner resolve.  Along the way, we are taken to a different country, culture and time.

Once a rebellious child, Chye Hoon wanted to go to school, but instead is groomed for marriage.  While she never wanted a husband, he soon becomes her best friend.  As rebellious as she was, she later clings to the traditions of marriage, family and food that are important to her in a culture undergoing Westernization.  Her story, loosely based on the author’s grandmother, is wonderfully rich with feelings:  love, loss, hope, sorrow and friendship.  There is no plot per se, but a central theme of breathing in two worlds which encompasses the whole book.  There are certainly cultural differences, but the book is full of “two worlds” that Chye Hoon, as well as all of us, navigates in daily life:

  • Tradition versus modern
  • Class differences
  • Racial differences
  • Family duty and responsibility versus independence
  • Family versus family
  • Work versus family
  • Moral versus immoral

There is a glossary, which is useful in understanding the foreign words and phrases throughout.  Still, the story flows along and held my interest throughout.  The downside to the writing was the use of dialog.  Those who are uneducated speak in broken English, quite the contrary of Chye Hoon’s eloquent narrative.  It is jarring and hard to interpret at times, but don’t let that stop you.  This is a long book at 474 pages, but the writing allows you to place yourself there and imagine life in that time and place.  The sights and smells are wonderfully descriptive, so make some time to savor the book.



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