Mei’s debut novel charts the aspirations of a Chinese family against the backdrop of wars and political shifts.
Tita Pasang, known in life as socialite Ahn Na in 1940s Shanghai, comes back as a fairy to help Trixi, the Kuo family’s “last hope.” The action switches from 2015 Germany to Shanghai, Pudong District, 1938, when the goals of Kuo Mingxun, Ahn Na’s brother, inspire his wife, Chun-xiang, to administer herbs to their 8-year-old son, Edwin, to help him be a better student. The potion works. Edwin wakes and is ready to take on his father’s wish to “know more than just the longtang, more than just China.” By finding work aboard supply and cargo vessels, Edwin travels as far west as France but mostly docks at ports along the eastern Pacific Ocean. He sees the effects of World War II and the bombing of Nagasaki. After a short imprisonment during the Cultural Revolution, he makes a life aboard a domestic Chinese cargo ship he captains. He raises his young sons, First Brother and Little Two, onboard while continuing to hope he will be reunited with his wife, Ling-hua. The narrative focuses briefly on the individual lives of Ahn Na, Little Two, and Trixi. Eventually, Edwin regains what he thought was lost by leaving what he most cherishes. The real tension of the novel begins when Edwin goes to sleep, a well-executed plot shift, with the action toggling between his mother’s mind and his dreams. His perceptions and emotions are the beating heart of the novel: “large butterflies of blood are dried around Auntie Cloud’s head and arms.” The framing exposition is entertaining but static, and key dramatic events are often told rather than shown. The sections devoted to Ahn Na, Little Two, and Trixi are as vividly written as much of the novel; however, these sections seem thin after the fullness and jewellike quality of Edwin’s complete and multifaceted tale.
Despite distracting exposition, this generation-spanning novel brings Chinese life and global history alive.