A young boy and his family struggle to adjust after the imprisonment of his father, an outspoken intellectual, in this dour slice-of-life novel about Maoist China from Tsukiyama (The Street of a Thousand Blossoms, 2007, etc.).
In 1957, Mao encouraged intellectuals to speak their minds in his “Hundred Flowers” proclamation, but by 1958 they are being rounded up for re-education. Sheng, a history teacher in a small southern city, has been arrested for sending a signed letter critical of the government to the premier’s office. Shipped to a labor camp 1,000 miles away, he leaves behind his wife, Kai Ying, an herbalist/healer, and their 7-year-old son, Tao, who live with Sheng’s aged father, Wei, a retired professor—the Lees have long been members of the educated bourgeoisie. These are stoic yet sensitive characters, filled with remorse for past mistakes and anxieties about the future they do not share with each other. They are also relatively well-off, with enough food and a large house, even after Sheng is taken away. As the novel opens, Tao falls out of a kapok tree in their garden, fracturing his leg. Although Tao faces typical boyhood obstacles, he mends physically and emotionally without much trouble (or real drama). Tao’s injury and recovery become an emotional outlet for his mother’s and grandfather’s reactions to Sheng’s incarceration. Kai Ying yearns for Sheng despite what she considers his foolhardy if morally upright stand, while Wei blames himself for letting Sheng go with the police when Wei actually wrote the letter (he and Sheng share the same formal name). Ultimately, Wei screws up his courage to find Sheng and has the liveliest adventure in the novel. Subplots involve two female victims of abuse: Suyin, a teenager raped by her stepfather, and Auntie Song, who survived her vicious husband. For all the delicacy of the prose, the novel substitutes moral clichés against abuse and authoritarianism for emotional energy.
The result reads like a faded black-and-white photo, charming but indistinct.