This is the kind of historical novel I love – it’s a decades-spanning family saga that builds on the author’s own family history. In this debut novel, Fu tells a story that parallels that of her father, who is born in China during the Japanese War of Aggression in the 1940s and the Chinese Civil War that followed. I knew very little of this history and found it both fascinating and terribly sad.
Meilin is a young woman whose life as a wife and mother is just beginning when her husband goes to fight against the Japanese and doesn’t come back. She and her son Renshu must flee their home in the Changsha region of China, walking many miles because the railways have been destroyed and enduring numerous bombing attacks. Renshu grows up amidst this terror, forced to relocate again and again until he and his mother finally settle in Taipei. As a young man, he comes to the U.S. as part of a graduate fellowship and once again builds his life in a new place. Only it’s not easy to be Chinese in the U.S. in the 50s and 60s, and the instability and fear of his childhood haunts him.
There was so much to love about this book. There was a wonderful balance of historical information, emotionally compelling characters, and rich cultural detail (food, clothes, storytelling, language, etc.). It’s written in a way that kept me constantly engaged. Fu deals with tragic events in a way that isn’t overly dramatic, but isn’t overwhelming or too detailed either. She doesn’t amplify the drama but she also doesn’t take easy ways out with the story — there are no neat resolutions for what these characters deal with. In fact, that’s a theme she comes back to repeatedly, which resonated with me. For every action, there are both positive and negative repercussions.
‘Not long after, a battle broke out between neighbouring warlords, and all the men in the village had to go to fight. Except for the old and the infirm. Because of his broken leg, the man’s son was spared. The fight was bloody and vicious. None of the men who went came back. It was only because the man was old and his son was lame that they survived to take care of each other for many years.’ Meilin pauses for a moment. ‘Within every misfortune there is a blessing, and within every blessing, the seeds of misfortune. And so it goes, until the end of time.’Peach Blossom Spring by Melissa Fu
This book resonated because Renshu’s experience in the United States made me think about what my father probably experienced, and what I experienced as his daughter. Renshu feels split into two identities, and he feels he has to close off his Chinese self to become American. He also feels he can’t share his traumatic experiences with his wife and daughter, even though they want to understand where he comes from and what he’s lived through. He feels they are better off not knowing, and he doesn’t see value in reliving his experiences.
My father didn’t have to deal with the racism that Renshu encounters, but he was also uprooted repeatedly as a young child and had to deal with trauma and loss, growing up in another country and then coming to the U.S. as an adult to start over. When he married and had children, I think that like Renshu he wanted to concentrate on the present time and place and not look back.
I also loved the way Fu keeps coming back to the importance of storytelling and language. Meilin teaches her son by showing him an elaborate scroll and teaching him the stories it holds, just like a parent today explores the world with their child through picture books. Those things create lasting memories for children, that we often come back to as adults. There’s a moment where Renshu is in a museum, many years later, and he sees a scroll like the one he loved as a child, which I found particularly memorable.
It’s often hard to follow a book that covers so many years (this one runs from 1938 to 2005). Fu keeps the story focused, so we’re not trying to follow too many characters or places. The story is told from three perspectives: Meilin, Renshu, and Renshu’s daughter Lily. The characters are well-developed, including the side characters like Renshu’s wife and Meilin’s brother-in-law.
I found this book incredibly moving, but also informative. I appreciated Fu’s writing style and her thoughtful use of symbolism and repetition. For anyone who likes historical fiction and reading about other countries, I highly recommend this.
Note: I received an advanced review copy from NetGalley and publisher Little, Brown and Co. This book published on March 15, 2022.