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Novel's powerful prose brings history to life

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, By Lisa See, Random House, 258 pp., $21.95

Reminiscences are often soaked in regret. With the clarity of hindsight, all the could-have, should-have possibilities seem obvious. But if we're lucky, as Lisa See's narrator Lily is, we remember some of the sweetness of bygone days as well. It's that mixture that gives a novel the air of reality and makes the reader keep on, despite sad and truly horrifying scenes.

Lily, the widowed octogenarian narrator of See's ''Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," doesn't have the happiest memories to look back on. Living in China's Hunan province in the middle of the 19th century as a girl, she's little more than property -- a ''temporary mouth to feed and a body to dress until I went to my husband's home" -- in a family that can scarcely afford to feed and clothe its two male children. Plus, she lives in the age of foot binding, and while she knows of girls in other provinces whose feet might be bound ''only temporarily, so they will look more attractive to their future husbands," Lily, along with her sisters and her cousin Beautiful Moon, has her feet broken and mutilated over a two-year period in the quest for the ''golden lilies" that will increase each girl's value, and thus their family's prosperity.

See's description of this process -- from the first wrapping and pain through the horrible shock of softened, pressured bones snapping -- is as graphic as if she's lived it. When one young girl dies, apparently from infection, the grief is as palpable as the horror.

The one thing that Lily has to carry her through such times is friendship. Early on, she has the companionship of her cousin, but even before Beautiful Moon is removed by yet another twist of fate, Lily has been chosen for something more special, a laotong relationship with the beautiful and privileged Snow Flower. This relationship is supposed to be lifelong, stronger than even the village ''sworn sisterhoods." Arranged much like a marriage between two young girls by a professional matchmaker, it allows intimacy between individuals who are not only treated as chattel but also eventually so maimed that they cannot casually stroll outside their own family compounds for visits. To ensure its longevity, oaths are taken and annual visits promised and planned. Most important, ritual letters -- composed on the ribs of a beautiful fan -- are passed back and forth. These letters are written in nu shu writing, a phonetic script developed and used exclusively by women.

For Lily, the receipt of the ''secret fan" and her first formulaic greeting from her new closest friend is a revelation: She will lose her birth family to marriage and her mobility to tradition. But Snow Flower, her laotong, will be with her forever, or so the nu shu promises.

It is this writing, clearly, that prompted See to undertake ''Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," a beautifully composed work that leaps ahead of See's three previous fun international thrillers. In her author's note, See discusses her discovery of nu shu and her time interviewing the then 96-year-old (now deceased) Yang Huanyi, the last surviving original nu shu writer. With the end of foot binding, See explains, the need for a secret written language died out. But without succumbing to didacticism, the novelist notes the parallels with her own generation, how class and sexism persist in separating us, and how the desire to communicate and connect survives.

In Lily's life, those connections -- like the communications -- are often flawed. And for all that she learns from the refined Snow Flower, Lily fails to spot some basic human weaknesses, or to recognize them for what they are. People can communicate, she learns, but they can also deceive. Fully incorporating its historical and philosophical underpinnings into lively, at times heartbreaking prose, ''Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" deals with timeless issues while evoking a forgotten era. How we learn to understand those we love, and what we can and cannot forgive, are great themes for any novel, even one without such a rich gender history subtext. Looking back with both affection and regret, Lily is a narrator who can bring these themes alive for us.

Lisa See will read from ''Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" at Harvard Book Store in Cambridge tonight at 6:30.

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