This is a powerful, enlightening, thoughtful, beautifully written — and devastating story. The audio version was worth the time, with an extraordinarily talented narrator, Katharine Chin. Audio is particularly valuable when as here, the writing is exquisite. But, since I have no writing to reference, I may get some details wrong. Sometime in the late 1860s or so, Daiyu is raised in China by loving parents and her grandmother– first in a city, whFere her mother designs and weaves extraordinary tapestries and then in a small town, where her grandmother can garden and they have a larger house. She is named for a tragic heroine of an old story involving a woman who is sickly and dies when her lover is tricked into marrying a healthier person. Our Daiyu is convinced that her life is preordained to be tragic as well. They live a stable and pleasant life until there is a turn of events that forces Daiyu to strike out on her own at age twelve.
A NOTE ABOUT THIS REVIEW: It does not contain spoilers, in the sense that I stuck to what people can learn from the publisher’s description with some details added that are also not spoilers. I think it’s safe to read on unless you don’t want to learn anything about the story and the writing.
This is a novel full of twists and turns, moments of stability and periods of great danger. At times, Daiyu must disguise herself as a boy, moving in unfamiliar circles and of necessity coming to understand how men, good or evil, perceive women and the different roles of gender. It is a deeply moving coming of age story. One theme in the book comes from a period of time when Daiyu has the chance to learn to write and learn about calligraphy. The master is as much philosopher as teacher and gives Daiyu ways to understand her challenges and to accept and live her life. Zhang weaves this experience through the story, describing what characters are used to make a name, a word and what the parts that make the sum mean about a word. In every iteration of her life, Daiyu uses her finger to write characters on her thigh and thinks about the language of her birth, eventually comparing the strangeness of English and its twenty-six letters to her beloved Chinese characters.
Because Daiyu is kidnapped and shipped to California where she is sold to a brothel. The act of kidnapping, being held prisoner, being smuggled across the sea and landing in a brothel before she has yet menstruated is powerfully written so that we experience what she experiences physically. The reader is mesmerized by her external and internal processing when at times is necessarily dissociative, involves an internal muse that Daiyu can see, it is so real and involves pain, a desire not to survive, a desire to go on. Eventually, Daiyu makes her way to Idaho in yet another strange turn of events, where she ultimately settles into work at a general store owned by a pair of Chinese men, who don’t ask a lot of questions of the boy they have hired for room and board and a small amount of money. It is in her time in Idaho that Daiyu becomes increasingly aware of the danger of being Chinese in the United States. For some years there have been incidents of mass violence against Chinese immigrants, who are viewed as stealing white men’s jobs. By the time she gets to Idaho, the mines that attracted Chinese workers are tapped out and many have moved on. The few Chinese residents of her town experience ongoing micro-aggression and more serious harassment. The store is targeted because it competes with a white owned store.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is passed while Daiyu is in Idaho and the radically anti-Chinese white population is further emboldened. Zhang does an amazing job of educating us, while engaging us at every moment, through discussions among several Chinese characters with varying degrees of sophistication about the current climate, activists taking risks to fight for Chinese rights and the violence/harassment they learn about in the newspapers and experience in their town. Zhang draws the array of characters with complexity, humanity, villainy, dreams, naivety and cynicism. Daiyu finds strength, self-awareness, trust in at least a few people and as she matures, she is always thinking about and acting toward a way forward in the face of heartbreaking challenges.
And every single bit of this novel is believable because the research is sound and the people compelling. Daiyu’s muse is a lovely addition and I won’t spoil that for you but I love this inner voice and its manifestation. There was a revealing interview with Zhang at the end of the audiobook that was quite enjoyable. She did not know much of this history until her senior year of college and then learned much much more through the research for this book. The story is inspired by her father’s visit to a town in Idaho where a historical marker touches on an event in its past involving some Chinese locals and a murder. Everything that happens to every character makes sense and happens for a reason. But over and over again, things that are hard to bear happen. I want everyone to read this, or even better to listen to it, but it is definitely not for those who cannot endure pain along with the beauty.