Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 November 1996)
SOURCE: A review of Monkey King, in Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 1996, p. 1618.
[In the following review, the critic praises Chao's ability in Monkey King to write a complex novel dealing with difficult themes in a seemingly effortless style.]
[Monkey King is a] skilled first novel that chronicles a young Chinese-American woman's breakdown and recovery, and her concurrent exploration of her family's murky emotional landscape.
When the story begins, 28-year-old Sally Wang is on 24-hour suicide watch at a mental institution that looks like the New England boarding school she once attended. With fellow patients like Lillith, who thinks that she's Joan of Arc, and 19-year-old Mel, who's flirty and prone to violence, Sally endures endless group therapy. Eventually, she begins to talk about her family. Originally from a small Chinese farming village, Sally's father had come to the US with dreams of being a physicist, but his sponsors died, and he ended up gloomy, frustrated, a failure. He also repeatedly raped Sally. Sally's tight-lipped mother didn't intervene and now, at family therapy, accuses Sally of having made up the incest thing. Sally's boy-crazy sister Marty also fails to support her. Sprung from the facility, Sally goes to St. Petersburg, Florida, for what turns out to be an experience in corrective parenting with her mother's less rigid sister Mabel and her husband Richard, who's respectful, generous, and amiable. Still feeling out of sorts, Sally sifts through memories of her unhappy marriage while clearing the yard of bruised grapefruits. She also begins an affair with a stranger that triggers, amidst much pleasure, the memories of the abuse, an advance over the all-encompassing numbness she's felt most of her life. Chao, meantime, never seems to be working hard to bring all this about: Her piercing eye for detail and her mastery of structure go almost unnoticed as Sally's adventures, ruminations, and memories layer one upon the next. But the novel's real strength is psychological portraiture. Every character (including the father) is multidimensional, carried along on deep currents of feeling of which they are often thoroughly (and believably) unaware.
Moving, lively, relentless, and deeply sad: an uncommonly accomplished debut.