Lin’s engrossing historical novel, set in 1940s China, vividly intertwines the tumultuous childhood of a young girl with the social and political events leading up to the Chinese Revolution.
As the daughter of a wealthy landowning family, Little Jade spends her early life in a large, luxurious compound in the Chinese countryside. Though she has everything she could ever want materially and a staff of servants waiting on her every need, Little Jade is unfulfilled. She has no memories of her mother and rarely sees her father. Her paternal grandmother has lovingly raised her since her parents left to study at university shortly after she was born. When Little Jade’s father returns home to marry a much younger woman—his first wife, Little Jade’s mother, disappeared after the Japanese invasion—the story then follows the turbulent path of the richly drawn characters as they navigate their own personal turmoil through the instability of living in China in the years before revolution. Lin effortlessly weaves together the painful histories of Little Jade’s mother, grandmother, stepmother and father into the child’s own ordeals, which include being shipped off to live in a convent on the eve of civil war and a plague that decimates an entire village. Though at times their actions are appalling—particularly Little Jade’s father’s—Lin paints the characters in such a way to elicit sympathy as they confront changing family traditions and the immense unrest sweeping the country; their reactions are convincingly authentic. Lin’s deft, graceful prose builds ominous tension for the majority of the novel; however, the pace abruptly becomes choppy toward the end as Little Jade discovers new truths about her family while adapting to the new political landscape. The ending feels rushed, but the rest of the novel is worth slowly savoring.
Lin succeeds in creating both an absorbing historical chronicle and the moving story of a family’s unbreakable bond.