Kirkus Reviews QR Code


by Li Ang ; translated by Sylvia Li-chun Lin with Howard Goldblatt

Pub Date: Nov. 24th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-231-17554-8
Publisher: Columbia Univ.

Yinghong, a Taiwanese woman, struggles with an all-consuming love for a magnetic businessman while remembering her gentle, unconventional father, who was imprisoned for dissident views.

In this novel, originally published in 1990, Ang (The Butcher’s Wife, 1983, etc.) contrasts a naïve young girl's relationship with her protective, kindly father and her later sexual obsession with a much colder man. Ang sketches both men clearly. Yinghong’s father, Zhu Zuyan, validates and encourages his timid daughter, helping her acquire knowledge fitting for a member of a gentry family. Lin Xigeng, on the other hand, is a regular in the seamy world of Taiwan nightlife and is headstrong and materialistic. He represents the new Taiwan, one economically on the move, while Zhu was caught up in the violent repression of the early days of Chiang Kai-shek’s rule. Yinghong suffers a lasting trauma when she sees her father abducted by brutish soldiers. Zhu is returned to the family because of his poor health and takes refuge in the Lotus Garden of the book’s title, which Ang renders in delicate, often compelling detail that also occasionally bogs the narrative down. Once the back-and-forth, past-to-present structure of the book is established, it begins to feel as if the flashbacks are mostly desultory episodes rather than events that develop the characters’ qualities. But in Zhu, Ang has created a character the reader genuinely cares about—we feel his warmth and intelligence, and Yinghong’s great love for him makes sense. Still, it’s the present-day story that seems more intriguing. Ang circles around it tantalizingly, describing Yinghong’s dreamy fall into erotic obsession with delicate precision and creating suspense with implications that Lin is a far darker character than he at first appears. This suspense doesn’t entirely pay off, and though the novel's separate elements aren't always woven into a satisfying whole, they're often written with such grace that they offer incidental pleasures. Lin is superb at writing sex scenes, and there are many in this book. She is also a keen observer of plant life.

An exploration of contemporary Taiwan through the lens of the past, this novel hits many poignant notes as it threads its way.