Philadelphia Inquirer // A Hundred Flowers by Gail Tsukiyama

My review of A Hundred Flowers ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sept. 2, 2012.

The title of Gail Tsukiyama’s charming new novel derives from a quotation from Mao Tse-tung: “Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend.” It’s a curious source of inspiration, considering that Mao’s administration seemed to do the exact opposite, and that the Chairman is both the primary antagonist of the book and a sinister force lurking behind the day-to-day doings of a humble Chinese family in 1958.

It’s not that I want to judge A Hundred Flowers by its cover, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the flap copy uses the words grace or graceful five times, including once in a laudatory blurb by Michael Chabon, which, I suppose, is meant to prepare us for Tsukiyama’s simplistic and unadorned prose style. She’s the best-selling author of six previous books, and this one will also appeal to lovers of stories about exotic foreign lands. It could fit just as nicely on a high school reading list as in the hands of a cosmopolitan book club, perhaps as a nice follow-up to Qian Zhongshu’s indelible classic Fortress Besieged.

Kai Ying lives in a haunted and formerly grand villa in the Dongshan neighborhood of Guangzhou, the largest city in southern China. She’s “something of a well-known herbalist and healer” who is “known for restorative teas and soups that cured many of the neighbors’ ailments.”

Kai’s expertise becomes vital to the story. That said, in terms of story, not all that much happens in A Hundred Flowers; it feels more naturalistic and more like real life than most novels. Many of the pleasures here result from watching Kai Ying interact with those around her, particularly her son, Tao.

Tao’s youthful exuberance enlivens the novel, and to a big extent he’s the character many readers will care about the most. He’s 7 years old when he falls from the kapok tree in his yard and breaks his leg. The accident sets him back at school. It’s possible he’ll have a limp his entire life, which makes his already difficult circumstances even more trying. A chance encounter with a pregnant teen at the hospital soon adds another interesting character, Suyin, to Kai Ying’s household.

Tao’s father Sheng lost his teaching job and was sent far away to reeducation camp in Luoyang for writing a letter critical of Mao and the Communist Party. He sent two letters home shortly after his incarceration and hasn’t been heard from since. Tao, Kai Ying, and Sheng’s father, a retired professor of art history named Wei, do their best to get by in his absence, unsure he’s even still alive. Their stories alternate chapter by chapter.

By the end, Wei arguably ends up being the most fascinating character here, in large part because he understands all too well the historical context for Mao’s reign. Wei used to work long hours, sorting through the evolution of art in each dynasty, cataloging every artifact or painting, recording each piece of information with the knowledge that this was his small contribution to the long, complicated history of China. What he relished most of all was discovering how the past has brought them to the present.

Wei also carries with him a terrible secret that he knows too well could throw his family into even greater disarray. It’s a secret that spurs him to spend his savings on an excruciatingly long train trip to his son’s last known whereabouts. It is in Wei’s chapters that Tsukiyama appears to display the novel’s political agenda:

When Wei was a boy, it was a different world, one that was now condemned by Mao and the Party as extravagant and wasteful. But he also remembered the beauty and intellectual curiosity of a country that could have easily caught up with the rest of the world, if she weren’t always being dragged backward. And now he didn’t know if Tao would ever experience any of China’s glories, other than in the stories from the books he had read to him. In the China his grandson was growing up in, just surviving each day left very little time for much else.

It’s not a particularly original argument to say that millions of people suffered – and continue to suffer – through China’s relatively recent transition to communism. What makes A Hundred Flowers so worthwhile is its ability to get past the statistics and show us the specific effects of vast political changes on one family, whose fates we come to care so much about.