Monday, December 31, 2012

316 (2012 #61). A Hundred Flowers

by Gail Tsukiyama

Sheng, a young father, is a victim of  "The Hundred Flowers Campaign,"

a period of debate in China 1956–57, when, under the slogan “Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend,” citizens were invited to voice their opinions of the communist regime. It was forcibly ended after social unrest and fierce criticism of the government, with those who had voiced their opinions being prosecuted. (Oxford Dictionary, online)
It's first mentioned on page 59 of the book, so unless the reader is savvy about Chinese history, it might not be very clear what is happening in this book at first.  The story covers just five months, July through November, 1958.

Five different third-person narrators, who share what was once a fine home in Guangzhou, add to the confusion.    Kai Ying, Sheng’s wife, is also an herbal healer.  Tao is their seven-year-old son, and he falls from the kapok tree in the yard to begin the tale. Wei is Sheng’s father, a former scholar and teacher. Song is a widow and Wei's sister-in-law. Suyin is a pregnant homeless teenage girl who Kai Yung takes in.

Furthermore, there are some factual errors in the book.  On page 27, when Tao is taken to the hospital after his fall from the tree, the author refers to him as "swallowed up by all the tubes and a machine attached to him that monitored his heart rate with a beeping sound that filled the room."  Trouble is - heart rate monitors did not exist in 1958 in Communist China!  In reading reviews since the book was published, I found this error was not corrected in final copies of the book - very disappointing for historical fiction.

Furthermore, the family seems to have a higher standard of living than one would expect at that time, particularly with a family member in a reeducation camp.  Sheng's being allowed to write any letters and have a visitor seem suspect to me as well.  Finally, the choppiness of the text due to the multiple narrators kept me from becoming invested in any of the characters - I just didn't care what happened to any of them.

This is the first novel I've read by Tsukiyama, and it wasn't bad enough to make me unwilling to read another of her books. I just wasn't very impressed with this one - especially compared with Dreams of Joy by Lisa See, set during the same time period - and I can't recommend it.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[I received a free copy of an advance reader edition of this book from a fellow member of an online book discussion group, for a group of us to read and discuss together.  The book will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

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