C.H. Zhu’s first novel, Descent, is a story about a young man from China who struggles with his sexual identity and the weight of his parents’ expectations. While Dr. Wu Rong has built a successful career as a scientist, he cannot come to terms with the fact that he’s gay, and what that will mean to his family and community in China. Even living in America, he doesn’t feel free. Because Zhu raises so many complex issues (and ones I don’t feel I know enough to discuss) I asked him for an interview, which I’ll post tomorrow. I hope that his thoughtful answers to my questions will inspire you to pick up his book. This book was beautifully written and at times, incredibly sad. Even though I appear to have little in common with this character, I really felt for Wu. On the surface he’s successful and calm, and inside he’s a mess of conflicting emotions. While many aspects of this book are specific to Chinese culture, or unique to the struggle of accepting one’s sexual orientation, many of Wu’s struggles seem universal. For example, the conflict between pleasing one’s parents and living one’s own life. Or the worry that you might end up living a life that has the same problems as your parents. Or even the not-so-simple question of what it means to be happy, or fulfilled, or free. Wu’s relationship with his mother is contrasted with his relationship with his father, who is something of a mystery to him. Throughout Wu’s childhood he seems sad, distant, almost not really there. Wu knows of his father’s history through his aunts – a history that involves the Communist and Cultural Revolution – but he struggles to really know his father. He knows stories, like how his father met his mother, but he doesn’t know the person. I want to share the opening of the book, because even this first chapter left a strong impression and sets up the rest of the book perfectly.
Pta. Pta. Pta. Sandals slapped against the floor. Plastic against cement. Pta. Pta. Pta. My mother’s sandals. Slapped against my skull. I was trying to sleep on a bamboo recliner on a hot summer afternoon. All was quiet. Only cicadas croaking on an old mulberry tree down the lane. “Sleep right there.” My mother had pointed to the doorway to the balcony. “That’s the coolest spot. You may get a cross breeze.” So I moved my recliner to that spot and lay down. Mother went to wash clothes in the bathroom. She had an intricate system of saving the water from each wash for other purposes: soapy water for rinsing the toilet, clear water for mopping the floor, and the clearest for washing the bathtub and the sink. The sound of water flowing from one vessel to another cooled the warm air. I was close, very close to falling asleep. Pta. Pta. Pta. Mother carried her wash from the bathroom to hang on the balcony. She shuffled her sandals as if unaware of the sound they were making. … I couldn’t help turning my head back and forth to shake off the sound while keeping my body still – very still – so that I wouldn’t jump up and grab those sandals and throw them out the window. I could throw them so hard that they would land on the rooftop of the next row. What a shame to have such a violent impulse! I had no idea where it came from. I was not that kind of boy. … What seemed to be a perfect afternoon – quiet, orderly, and productive – would now risk unraveling. Mother had picked for me the best spot to rest, but I wasn’t resting. Instead I was telling her that her carelessness had prevented me from doing exactly what she wanted me to do. No, I wouldn’t be able to say that. Not to a mother who had given up her nap to do chores, a mother who tried to do everything she could for the good of her child. Pta. Pta. Pta. I stayed still. As always, the best thing to do was to stay still and endure.
I found Wu’s character incredibly sympathetic in that he really tries to be honest with himself and others, and he also constantly tries to put other people’s needs ahead of his. Unfortunately, he finds that making one person happy often means hurting someone else – or himself. I was impressed by the complexity of this book. While I’ve boiled the plot down to a few key ideas in this review, Zhu layers history, culture, class and societal norms across continents and decades. In a relatively short book he shows how truly difficult it can be to meet the expectations of our families and cultures, as well as the expectations we place on ourselves. Even on the issue of acceptance of homosexuality, this is not just an “issue book” – Zhu really makes you think about how difficult it is for Wu to accept his own sexuality. It’s not just an issue of rights or culture. Wu thinks about whether he could live openly in America as a gay man; today, he could even marry or adopt a child. But it’s not that simple, because our families, our upbringing, and our cultures influence what we can accept in ourselves. My one issue with this book relates to a plot development that I can’t really talk about because it affects the outcome of the book. It just seemed out of character for Wu and out of step with the thoughtful tone of the book throughout. If you read the book I’d be interested to know what you think. I hope you’ll check out my interview with Zhu, to be posted tomorrow. Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author in exchange for a review. The author had no input in the content of this review.