A four-part suite of astute, lyrical, and often poignant stories poses incisive questions about what changes—and what does not—when people from another culture become Americans.
You could, if you wished, refer to this blend of historically inspired narratives as The Birth of a Chinese-American Nation, as Davies (The Welsh Girl, 2007, etc.) encompasses whole eras of history, transition, and even consciousness in the four stories that make up this novel. The first, set in the mid-19th century, focuses on Ling, whose fastidious and imperturbably dogged performance as manservant to rail magnate Charles Crocker inspires "Mister Charley" to consider hiring a vast workforce of Chinese immigrants to help lay down tracks for the first transcontinental railroad. (“A model of industry,” Crocker says of Ling to a pair of Siamese twins. “Were it not for his shining example, we…should never have thought to hire so many thousands of your countrymen.”) The second story belongs to Anna May Wong, the glamorous, mordantly witty movie star, as she makes her only visit across the Pacific to her family’s Chinese homeland in the mid-1930s after losing the coveted lead role in the movie version of The Good Earth to Luise Rainer. The book becomes more impassioned in the third section, which uses the fatal 1982 beating of Vincent Chin near Detroit by an autoworker and his stepson who had mistaken him for Japanese as an inquiry into the nature of racism itself. The last story, set close to the present day, is about a biracial Chinese-American author named John who sets off with his wife, Nola, for mainland China for the purpose of adopting a child—which gently but resolutely brings this neatly woven portrait full circle.
Davies’ nuanced contemplation of how America has affected the Chinese (and vice versa) forces the reader to confront what is both singular and similar about all cross-cultural transactions.