A quiet and occasionally disturbing story set in contemporary Beijing. There are dreamlike sequences involving suspenseful secrets that have been withheld. Piano music is a central theme linked to real mushrooms and surreal ghost mushrooms. Overall, a haunting experience.
Egg On Mao – Denise Chong
Ms. Chong wrote the wonderful The Concubine’s Children some time ago. This new novel is historical, focussing on a young man, Lu Decheng, in South China who travels to Beijing in May 1989 to anticipate in the student pro-democracy movement. The story unfolds impeccably with two parallel stories: Decheng’s life leading to his fateful decision to go to Tiananmen Square, and his subsequent betrayal by the student leaders and his imprisonment for defacing a portrait of Mao. The complexity and chaos of the student revolution is described graphically, both the highs and the lows. Overall, this is a stunning story that provides a brilliant counterpoint to Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing.
The Tea Girl Of Hummingbird Lane – Lisa See
Although this novel is relatively contemporary (begins in 1988), the focus is on an isolated ethnic minority in China, the Akha hill tribe. Because of isolation, this group follows old traditional ways; the Chinese cultural revolution has almost completely missed these people. Their traditional way of life is described impeccably, and then the halting transition to more modern ways of living. Contemporary identity issues of Chinese children in America adds to the richness of the story telling. This is the best of Lisa See’s novels so far.
Barkskins – Annie Proulx
This is a sweeping Michener-like novel that spans over 300 years, with two family trees at the back of the book to keep track of multiple characters. The novel begins with two men from France who go to New France (Quebec) in 1693 to make a new life in the new world. Their lives diverge remarkably. Charles Duquet/Duke is driven by greed and opportunity to establish a huge and prosperous timber empire; Rene Set marries an indigenous woman so his story takes a very different path. Exploitation of forests is a major theme, not just in North America; the story also extends to China and New Zealand (the giant kauri trees). The book has a satisfying ecological message at the end – overall, a very good read.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien
Thien has written some fine books (Dogs At The Perimeter, Certainty), but this new book is her best yet – an epic story of China. The evocative writing describes the agony of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s leading up to the horror of the Tiananmen Square massacre. There are three central characters that are linked by their passion for music.
The coda at the end of the book describes the first time a lost composition for violin and piano is played: “At first, the violin played alone, a series of notes that slowly widened. When the piano entered, I saw a man turning in measured elegant circles, I saw him looking for the centre that eluded him, this beautiful centre that promised an end to sorrow, the lightness of freedom. The piano stepped forward and the violin lifted, a man crossing a room and a girl weeping as she climbed a flight of steps; they played as if one sphere could merge into the other, as if they could arrive in time and be redeemed in a single overlapping moment. And even when the notes they played were the very same, the piano and violin were irrevocably apart, drawn by different lives and different times. Yet in their separateness, and in the quiet, they contained one another”.
This book has great story telling with some transcendent writing – highly recommended.
The Valley Of Amazement by Amy Tan
Story set in Shanghai from approx. 1900-1930, two mother-daughter relationships spanning 3 generations. Detailed description of life as a courtesan through good times and bad times. Chinese men have anglicized first names like Perpetual and Loyalty.