I’m a little bit behind on my Muse Monthly books. This one was in the January box. Whoops. Here’s my problem: I get too many books at the library (they’re free, so of course it’s impossible to say no to anything that looks even remotely interesting) and then I have to read them first/faster because they have to be returned. At the same time, for all the books I own, I’m like, “They aren’t going anywhere, I’ll get to them after this round of library books.” And see where that gets me? It’s a never-ending cycle and now I’m over four months late on this read… Better late than never I guess.
“This book tells the story of Jialing, zazhong (Eurasian or mixed race), and the daughter of a prostitute. Abandoned by her mother at age 7, she relies on the charity of another family to keep her clothed/fed and, for luck, prays to and befriends an animal spirit, Fox. The novel follows her through her life in early 1900s China, as she grows into a young adult, has a chance to attend school and learn English, experiences many forms of alienation and disgust, and navigates her way through various challenges and life changes.
The writing was really well done overall – there was a beautiful flow and style to Chang’s language that just drew the reader along. And the overall pacing and feel of the story was lyrical and atmospheric. I really enjoyed the creation of the time period and the location, both of which I have very little experience with. And the portrayal of the prejudices against mixed race people, from both Europeans and Asians, as well as the compounded shame of being born to a prostitute and having no family connections to help you move forward, on top of all the “normal” limitations placed on women in general at that time, was moving and heartbreaking. The social barriers and taboos that were nigh on impossible to overcome meant that so many women lived lives full of sorrow and suffering without any hope of a way out. Relatedly, the seemingly at odds view of prostitutes, the low end ones that work in brothels vs the high end ones kept by rich men alongside their wife/wives, was so interesting to me. That women who survive by the same means can be viewed separately and simultaneously as disgusting and revered is an intriguing look into the mindset of the culture and, as always, the importance of money and status. As I said, this is a time period and population that I have read little about previously and so those pieces of it were interesting and eye-opening. Additional tidbits, like the traditional roles of women in the home (like, Anjuin, Jialing’s friend, and oldest daughter in the home that took her in) versus the role of women in missionary schools (like Miss Morris), and the slow move towards acceptance of more freedom and responsibility outside the home for women in general, were explored nicely as well. Honestly, for all the difficult situations faced by women at the time, I’d say this book is fairly feminist in it’s portrayal of intelligent, capable women interacting and helping each other achieve a better “happy ending” by whatever means they have access to under their circumstances. A very different, but well done, historical feminist perspective, I think.
The inclusion of Fox as a main character was interesting for me. I am normally a big fan of magical realism and I love reading about the gods and spirits of other cultures. So I definitely enjoyed it in that respect. But at the same time, you could read the book in a completely different way – one in which Fox, and Fox’s role, were not necessarily real and just played out in Jialing’s head. I mean, everything that happened could also have happened/been explained without Fox being a real, active character and just as a figment of Jialing’s imagination, one that began as a coping mechanism in her childhood and carried over into her adult life when she faced particularly difficult situations. This is especially possible since, over and over, we hear Jialing complain about all the things happening in her life around her that determine her path and fate without her say – she feels like a life blown through the wind with no control over her motion or direction. This was a common theme/concern explored throughout the book, in many ways and from many perspectives, for each of the female characters – not a single woman, no matter her status, was free from it in this time/culture so dominated by men. So Jialing’s circumstances could easily have been due to either Fox’s machinations or just the time period itself. In any case, it was difficult for me to categorize this book and I waffled between contemporary lit and magical realism for some time. I’m still not sure what I actually think, which is an interesting effect and I credit the author with the ability to create it.
However, while I enjoyed all those aspects, there was something about the novel overall that kept me from completely engrossing myself in the story. I felt like there was a lot that happened that was maybe too convenient. I understand that Fox is the explanation for this, her watching over Jialing and creating the luck to make things fall in her favor, but all in all, it may have happened just one too many times for me to believe. I particularly felt this way about some of the more fantastic plot points and, in particular, the ending. And overall, those situations just built up to a point where the book wasn’t quite as compelling as I felt it could be. I’m not sure that’s all there was, but that’s the only thing I can think of to put my finger on in regards to why I came away from this having enjoyed it and feeling like I learned a lot about the time period, but not totally in love with it.”