I picked this book up as part of my ongoing effort to read more diverse books and combining that with the evergreen goal of reading from my TBR. Plus – it also fit in a missing year on my Century of Books project as well. Check, check, and check.
I’d heard of this title, but wasn’t exactly sure what it was about much more than it was a creative autobiography of a Chinese immigrant to the U.S., and this is what the read was, in the end, but it was certainly a lot more than the run-of-the-mill story of someone’s life. A lot of libraries tend to classify this novel as “creative nonfiction.” (My issue with that is what is the final ratio of facts to fiction before it tips over into 100% fiction? Perhaps I’ll never know…)
On the surface, it’s a well-written autobiography of Hong Kingston, and there are strong overlaps between what Western historians would call “personal history” and the culture of being a Chinese person in America. However, this fairly straightforward personal history is filtered through a large lens of Chinese culture, myth, and folklore, and when I was done with the read, I was a bit dizzy with the whole ride. It was good, but it was a bit of a wild journey.
The narrative structure is divided into five pieces. (I’d say “chapters” but I think that these separations are more meaningful than the typical chapter in traditionally structured fiction pieces.) Throughout the reading, Hong Kingston smoothly blends the facts of her childhood, myths and talk-story of old China, and then combines the result with the Chinese diaspora experience in the US.
It’s very dreamy and surreal in many ways, and so the passage of time is flexible which means that you’re just not sure what is true and what is not.
(Side note: Thinking about it, I think that the argument of truth vs. fiction could be held for every autobiography as memory is not always accurate (even when it is).)
I’m actually finding it pretty difficult to review this in any helpful way for you, so I’ll just give you some pointers if you’re thinking about reading it. (It’s a very common text for freshmen lit survey classes in US campuses.)
- Be prepared to go with the flow as it’s not a linear A-B-C narrative arc.
- Be prepared for some magical realism type of writing.
- Be prepared to enjoy a mélange of Chinese myth and family dynamics of a family who are fairly recent immigrants.
- Familiarize yourself a bit with the Chinese Revolution history as it plays a major role in the background.
- Be prepared for a litany of character names: Brave Orchid, No Name Woman, Fa Mu Lan, Sitting Ghost, and loads of others.
- Finally, I would recommend that you read this novel in big chunks of time instead of a pick-up put-down manner.
So a pretty good read, but not as awesome as I thought it was going to be. (This may have been my fault as opposed to the book’s fault though.) Plus – it’s a title off the TBR pile. Hooray for that.