World War II–era romance, with dark edges and sharp social commentary, by Chinese expatriate novelist Chang (Love in a Fallen City, 2006, etc.).
No one is happy in the Sheng household, where, in prewar Shanghai, the parents have parted, the mother to be her own free-spirited woman, the father to sink into the dream of an opium pipe. Julie, their daughter, is in Hong Kong in an English school, trying to beat the masters at their own game; early on, Chang tells us, she resolves that she “simply had to find a way to force teachers to give her the highest marks ever awarded and make sure they would feel guilty if she didn’t receive the top score.” As the story progresses, borrowing a page from Rachel, her mother, Julie further resolves to be her own person, an artist of renown, a goal complicated by an ill-advised, complicated romance with Chih-yung, a collaborator with the Japanese puppet regime. Chih-yung, for his part, has a seemingly endless store of wives tucked all over China, but that doesn’t keep him from cooing to Julie, “I don’t like courtship, I like marriage….I want to settle down with you.” It takes another 100-odd pages for Julie to see through Chih-yung, over the course of which she begins to notice in sharp outline the foibles of her own family and household, who bear names such as “Tall and Skinny” and “Thirteenth Master.” Chang skillfully delves into a number of compelling issues, including anti-Asian racism (“You people never go overseas,” Rachel scolds. “If you did, then you’d know just how humiliating it is to be looked down upon”) and drug addiction. And if in the end the story is a kind of high-minded potboiler along the lines of Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War, it makes for a multifaceted portrait of pre-Communist Chinese society.
Originally written in 1976 but not published until 2009 in China, this is a welcome discovery from a writer who is only now, more than two decades after her death, coming into her own.