Last Updated September 5, 2023.
One of the primary themes of Amy Tan’s The Hundred Secret Senses is that of sisterhood and love. In this novel, Tan explores what it means to be sisters, and how family ties can bond us in a way no other relationship can.
Olivia is very young when her Chinese-born father is dying and tells her American mother that he has a daughter in China who he’d like to live with the family. Kwan, Olivia’s half-sister, arrives and Olivia is less than enthused. She finds her new sister annoying and strange. Kwan believes she can see ghosts, and she shares stories with Olivia which frighten Olivia and result in Kwan spending some time in a mental institution.
Years later, when both women are adults and Olivia’s marriage to Simon is failing, Kwan steps in to help her. Olivia and Simon had planned a work trip to China, which is approved after they’ve already separated. Kwan encourages them to go anyway, and tags along as a translator — though her real motive is to get them back together.
Kwan gets on Olivia’s nerves and Olivia isn’t particularly patient or kind to Kwan, and yet their relationship perseveres. Kwan is determined to help Olivia no matter what, and Olivia does eventually learn what it means to be sisters. Kwan’s love for Olivia is unconditional, and she makes the ultimate sacrifice for Olivia and Simon. She was searching for Simon in a cave and became lost, never to be found again.
Another theme in the novel is that of ghosts. Kwan says she has “yin eyes,” meaning she can see the dead. She believes in reincarnation and that she used to be Nunumu, a servant in the 1860s whose best-friend was an American named Miss Nelly Banner. Kwan discovers and shares that Olivia was Nelly in a past-life. Olivia eventually remembers everything, and understands why they are sisters now. Kwan also uses her yin eyes to help Simon come to terms with the death of a former girlfriend, Elza.