A stunning first novel from Wang, a Chinese émigré to Holland, depicts a young girl’s coming of age under the specter of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
When Lian Shui develops an unsightly rash, her mother Yunxiang, a university professor who’s to be sent to a reeducation camp in the countryside to mend her “bourgeois intellectual” ways, begs to be allowed to stay in Beijing to care for her daughter. The Head of the Party Committee takes pity and allows Lian’s mother to take the child with her to the camp. There, Lian’s education begins, as some of China’s best scholars become her tutors, educating her in the old ways, while she forms lasting friendships and uncensored ideas that Mao has forbidden. Isolated among adults, and precocious by nature, Lian later spends her youth amid the waves of terror and suffering wrought by the Cultural Revolution. She sees her beloved teachers persecuted and humiliated, and, after the family is allowed to return to Beijing, where she reconnects with her childhood friend Kim, she learns at firsthand the paucity and hypocrisy of Mao’s teachings. While he venerated the peasants and the working class, Kim, a “third caster, a mud-hut dweller,” is nonetheless vilified by students and teachers alike, no matter how she succeeds in the revolutionary virtues. Like Anne Frank before her, Lian is the eyes and heart of history, retaining the energy and hope of youth, the individuality of a thinker, while experiencing the pangs of adolescence and friendship that no regime or dictator can squelch. Wang’s prose, translated from the original Dutch, felicitously mixes the old with the new (“I didn’t give a hoot about what the others might make of it, but I was left reeling, as if the sky had landed on my head”); and, though the pace is leisurely, moral principles lie hidden in everyday occurrences.
A rich, revealing, and powerful debut.