Count Less Happiness

It took me longer than her first collection of essays, but I enjoyed reading Xiaohan’s novel tremendously. For almost three decades, I have not picked up a Chinese novel (not counting memoirs and essays) to read for pleasure. I’m glad I started with this one; it may encourage me to read more Chinese novels.

First and foremost, I find the title a very clever one: if the first two words are not separated, it becomes ‘countless’. And the story is both about counting less happiness and countless happiness.

The novel is written in the first person, but the protagonist is a young lady called Higby Giselle Williams, aged 23. Her mother is Giselle Larsen, a piano teacher and her father is Martin Williams; ‘Higby’ is the last name of the great jazz pianist Barbara Higby, whom the mother once emulated.

Higby is born with only five fingers. She does not have a left palm but a stump with no fingers. A normal person has ten fingers: the five fingers on the right hand plays the  main melody while the left hand can play the accompaniment. Would a person with no finger in the left hand be unable to play a complete piece, and hence can’t hope for happiness? On the other hand, people say that happiness slips through the fingers like sand; thus, does it mean that if there is no space between the fingers, it would be easier to grasp hold of happiness?

Higby hopes other people will judge her successes and failures like everyone else; she has five fingers on her right hand, and can play the melody and can decide if her life is a sad nocturne or a lively tune. She can’t clap but she can tell herself to put in extra effort, as long as she can hear herself. Her situation reflects how ignorant some people are about those with disabilities.

Her mother, Giselle, played the keyboard in a band at bars and music lounges, where she met a scholar from Virginia Technological University, Martin Williams. He wooed her with prose by Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and poems by Emily Dickenson (1830-1886) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861).

From a young age, Higby could tell her mother’s moods by the music she played – songs from cartoons tell Higby that she is loved, a piece like Mozart’s Alla Turca says she’s generally okay though slightly annoyed, a piece like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata says she’s thinking of someone.

There is a significance in naming each chapter after every finger, as the plot/sub-plots would revolve around what the finger supposedly imply, for example the middle finger is associated with rudeness, the ring finger is associated with love and the little finger is associated with promises.

The book reveals how well-versed Xiaohan is in music, language, literature and science. If only Science concepts were explained in such an interesting way when I was studying, I might have fared better in my exams!

The book is entirely in Chinese, even the quotes from John Gray’s book “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus“. Two other quotes I like (translated into Chinese) are from:

Karen Blixen (Danish, 1885-1962) – The cure for anything is salt water – sweat, tears or the sea;

Gustave Flaubert  (French, 1821-1880) – Love is a springtime plant which perfumes everything with its hope – even the ruin to which it clings.

I am sure Xiaohan spent a long time to write this novel, and it would be some time before she pens another one. The next book I’m reading consists of short stories, and the one recently launched is also not a novel.


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