An emotionally resonant coming-of-age story set during China’s Cultural Revolution.
When Li Ling receives a letter notifying him of his former lover’s death, his wife notices his distress and inquires about it; virtually the entire story is contained within his flashback narrative. He tells of being captivated by Zhang Lily from the moment he met her as a young schoolboy recently returned to Shanghai from Hong Kong. The two quickly became inseparable, eventually including Big Head, another young boy, in their childhood adventures. But their lives were turned upside down by the communist rise to power. Suddenly, Zhang Lily’s father, a professor, and Li Ling’s father, a surgeon, were stripped of professional esteem; schoolchildren were forced to labor in factories and fields; suspected dissidents were subjected to forceful re-education and public censure. Torn apart by the demands of an oppressive state, the lovers promised to hold each other in their hearts forever. Years of drudgery passed before college admissions were reinstated on a large scale, at which point the couple coincidentally found themselves enrolled at the same institution. However, the reunion, while joyful, proved to be not quite what Li Ling expected. Chen (The Mystery of Revenge, 2013 ) offers a somewhat meandering story, but the sedate pacing allows for a deeper exploration of the effects of the Cultural Revolution on individual lives. Dialogue is generally natural and authentic, though some sections are unrealistically didactic (e.g., a stilted discussion of the importance of free elections). The plotting is similarly uneven, a mix of engaging plot twists with those that lack credibility, as with an accused rapist’s initial reluctance to defend himself due to his worrying about his accuser’s potential punishment. Repeated references to the forget-me-not Lily gave Li Ling can be a bit heavy-handed, though the motif itself is endearing. Minor editing errors (e.g., “we were just prawns in the manipulative hands of the state”) are pervasive but don’t detract significantly. The flashback device is necessary for a surprise conclusion that, though only mildly surprising, is nonetheless satisfying.
An inconsistent but appealing novel about life and love within the strictures of a repressive regime.