Description and Point of View in Mo's Sour Sweet

Noah M. Landow

A modernist, Timothy Mo deals primarily with how individuals see the world. His subject matter in Sour Sweet , a Chinese family living in London, is particularly well suited to such an emphasis upon point of view. Mo always shows the world through the eyes of one character, thus emphasizing the Chinese, as opposed to British, experience; he does so characteristically on page 2 of Sour Sweet: "Although uncomfortably full, hot too, Chen would have liked a biscuit, but Lily was unrelenting here as well. Sweet after salty was dangerous for the system, so she had been taught; it could upset the whole balance of the dualistic or female and male principles, yin and yang."

Mo's emphasis upon the foreignness of his character's backgrounds adds something important to English literature. In this passage, where Mo discusses Chen's views of his wife Lily, the interest springs from the foreign point of view:

On Lily there were two opposing views. Chen did not think she was pretty. She had a long, thin, rather horsey face and a mouth that was too big for the rest of her features, and also a tiny mole just under the rim of her lower lip on the left side, which fell into a dimple when she smiled, which was frequently, too frequently to be consonant with Chen's passive ideal of female pulchritude. She was also rather busty and her hands a feet were a fraction too big to be wholly pleasing to her husband. It was her face, though, which really let her down (Chen had decided) being overfull of expression, particularly her bright black eyes which she had a habit of widening and narrowing when listening to something she found interesting. Probably there was too much character in her face which perhaps explained the lack of Cantonese male interest. . . Westerners found her attractive, though. (16)

Chen here describes lily's face as "long, thin, [and] rather horsey," which Mo contrasts to a Chinese standard of beauty----that of a round, well-fleshed face.

He describes her face and mouth as "too big for the rest of her features," and her face on the whole as too expressive and too often smiling. He adds that she is "rather busty." These features all add up to a woman who, in Western eyes, possesses beauty. And yet in Chen's eyes, she is unattractive. Using Chen as a limited, non-omniscient narrator, Mo artfully and craftily conveys a significant difference between the Western and Chinese ways of constructing beauty. Does Mo suggest that either conception of physical beauty is correct or superior? What, then, does his position imply about the character and fate of the individual?

Mo's Sour Sweet United Kingdom Overview