An epic political novel focusing on post–World War II dissidents in Taiwan and especially on its repressive government.
The narrator, never named, is born in February 1947, at a time of political upheaval in Taiwan. Two weeks after her birth, Chinese nationalists under the helm of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek respond brutally to an uprising. Caught in the political chaos is Dr. Tsai, the narrator's mild-mannered father, who makes a brief speech in favor of democracy at a community meeting…and disappears. He’s gone for a decade—imprisoned, interrogated, and broken. When he’s finally released, he’s scarcely recognizable and is unable to work as a physician, instead taking on a few menial jobs, overseeing the narrator’s education, and spending a lot of time in his room. Ryan skips over great chunks of time to keep the focus on Tsai’s family, as the narrator lives her life within the context of political dissidence and the possible effects her father’s incarceration might have on the family. For example, the narrator’s brother is worried he won’t get promoted in the army if it becomes known that his father was a political prisoner. The narrator eventually marries Wei, a Chinese-American, and moves to Berkeley, where her husband is a professor. They get into difficulty when they give refuge to Tang Jia Bao, a Taiwanese pro-democracy dissident who was smuggled out of the country, and this difficulty is exacerbated when the narrator and her husband visit Taiwan to see family.
The narrative works movingly on many different levels but especially on the personal and the political.