Hilary Spurling’s biography of Henri Matisse, ‘Matisse the Master’, won the overall Whitbread Book of the Year in 2005, and this study of Pearl Buck demonstrates why. Her meticulous research reveals itself in fascinating details of Buck’s personal and professional life, but Spurling also provides a hugely entertaining read. ‘Burying the Bones’ boasts a narrative as compelling as any pot-boiler, and features a heroine so multi-talented, and yet beset by personal tragedy, that a cautious novelist might well feel the need to tone down her colourful life. Spurling, juggling Buck’s life and fiction, strikes the perfect balance.
Born Pearl Sydenstricker in West Virginia in 1892, Buck lived for the first half of her life in China. Her father, Absalom, was a Presbyterian missionary who preached hell-fire and damnation. He dedicated his life to converting the Chinese to Christianity at the expense of his own family, who lived for long periods in abject poverty. Living cheek-by-jowl with the Chinese peasants, Buck grew up not only bilingual but empathic to their culture. Her experiences would later be recorded in novels such as ‘The Good Earth’ (1931), ‘This Proud Heart’ (1938) and ‘The Time is Noon’ (1966). ‘The Good Earth’ was the best-selling novel in the US in 1931 and 1932, and won Buck the Pulitzer Prize. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1938, the first woman American writer to be so honoured.
What makes Spurling’s account of Buck’s life such a treasure is that she concentrates for the most part on the writer’s formative years. In a narrative of 279 pages (not counting bibliography and footnotes), Spurling only arrives at the publication of Buck’s first novel, ‘East Wind: West Wind’ (1930), on page 207. Recognising, perhaps, that Buck’s prodigious output and well publicised life in the wake of ‘The Good Earth’ has been covered in Peter Conn’s ‘Pearl Buck: A Cultural Biography’ (1998), Spurling roots this book in a very personal account of Buck’s early life. Here we read of the tensions that existed in the family home, between a father who vacillated between despair and ecstasy at his achievements as a missionary and an initially vivacious mother who is gradually ground down by the unremitting squalor of their hand-to-mouth existence. The most extreme consequence of the Sydenstrickers’ self-imposed exile was the death of three of Buck’s siblings, who were lost to disease as young children.
Spurling also broadens her remit to provide a historical context to the author’s life in China. Buck lived through turbulent times in her first three decades, witnessing the Boxer Rebellion firsthand and enduring the ensuing revolutions that eventually culminated in the establishment of a Communist state. On a number of occasions the Sydenstricker family found itself quite literally running for its life, as did the Buck family in later years, during ‘the Nanking Incident’.
Juxtaposed with the political upheavals are the day-to-day detail of ordinary Chinese family life, a precarious existence routinely shattered by flood, famine and bandit attack. While she draws heavily on Buck’s own writings for much of her local colour, Spurling has a deft touch when it comes to conveying the prosaic horrors Buck endured. Describing an exodus from the north by a population fleeing a famine, she writes: “Entire populations on the move devoured everything in their path, stripping bark from the trees and grass from the hills. No birds, animals or children survived in their wake.”
The chilling spectre of cannibalism appears more than once in ‘Burying the Bones’, but Buck’s themes in her own writing were of less dramatic, more domestic concerns. Drawing for inspiration on the popular Chinese stories despised by the literary elite, Buck created vivid and accessible tales about the struggles of an equally despised rural working class. Her heroines faced marital rape, emotionally starved marriages and the time-honoured practice of driving an unwanted bride to suicide. Infanticide, particularly that of baby girls, was rife. At times, Spurling notes, the parents didn’t even bother to kill the baby before throwing it to the starving dogs.
Although she initially married happily to John Lossing Buck, Pearl Buck experienced marital breakdown in her own life. Spurling implicitly links the growing confidence of Buck the writer to the disintegration of her marriage into an arranged convenience, particularly after Caroline, the Bucks’ daughter, was born with a rare condition that prevented the child’s mental development. That Caroline’s birth resulted in complication that prevented Buck from having more children compounded the tragedy. Yet Buck would later take this experience and, having adopted children herself, establish Welcome House, the first international, inter-racial adoption agency.
Author, mother, editor, political campaigner, Buck was at the height of her popularity credited with ‘opening the door’ between America and China. Discredited in China in the wake of the Communist revolution for her depiction of China’s woes, and largely forgotten in America despite her popular and critical acclaim, Buck is well overdue a reappraisal. Hilary Spurling’s compelling account of Buck’s life goes a long way to providing that service. - Declan Burke
This review first appeared in the Sunday Business Post
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.