Tuesday, August 7, 2012

REVIEW: A Hundred Flowers by Gail Tsukiyama

Synopsis (from Amazon): China, 1957. Chairman Mao has declared a new openness in society: “Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend.” Many intellectuals fear it is only a trick, and Kai Y ing’s husband, Sheng, a teacher, has promised not to jeopardize their safety or that of their young son, T ao. But one July morning, just before his sixth birthday, Tao watches helplessly as Sheng is dragged away for writing a letter criticizing the Communist Party and sent to a labor camp for “reeducation.” 

A year later, still missing his father desperately, Tao climbs to the top of the hundred-year-old kapok tree in front of their home, wanting to see the mountain peaks in the distance. But Tao slips and tumbles thirty feet to the courtyard below, badly breaking his leg. As Kai Ying struggles to hold her small family together in the face of this shattering reminder of her husband’s absence, other members of the household must face their own guilty secrets and strive to find peace in a world where the old sense of order is falling. Once again, Tsukiyama brings us a powerfully moving story of ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances with grace and courage.

My Thoughts: There are two things I've been wanting to do for awhile.  One is read more historical fiction novels set during the days of Mao Zedong's Communist China.  The other is to read something by Gail Tsukiyama as I have had all six of her previous novels on my shelf for quite some time.  A Hundred Flowers gives a more intimate portrait of the time period by focusing on how the changes in government affected one particular family.  Taking place during the 100 Flowers Campaign in which the government encouraged citizens to express their opinions on the government (then used it against them), we meet Tao-a little boy whose father Sheng was taken away to a camp for re-education for writing a letter critical of the government, his mother Kai Ying, Grandfather Wei, and neighbor Song who live in Guangzhou province.  The story is told from the points of view of each of these characters, as well as Suyin-a homeless pregnant girl who becomes attached to the family.

The story is really about watching the struggles of these characters unfold in the absence of Sheng and the heartache they experience of not knowing what happened to him-is he alive?  Where is he?  Is he ever coming home?  The story of this family begins several month's after Sheng has been carted off by the government when six-year old Tao decides to climb the old tree in the yard and falls and badly breaks his leg.  At the hospital they encounter Suyin who has run away from home to spare her family the shame of her pregnancy.  After Sheng is taken Grandfather Wei seems to deteriorate before the family's eyes as if carrying a heavy mental burden and neighbor Song helps where she can but carries a dark secret herself.  Kai Ying is the quiet hero of the story who tries to keep everyone together and functioning using her skills as a healer to bring in a meager income for the family.

This is not a plot driven novel.  At times you may be left wondering what the purpose is of reading a book about a rather ordinary family that was probably experiencing the same things thousands of families were experiencing at that time.  The magic of the novel lies in 2 things: 1) It puts a human face on the suffering of the Chinese people during Chairman Mao's regime.  It is so much easier to read about it in the history books and then pass it by when you don't have a "real" persons story behind it.  2) The determination of these characters as they each confront their own issues-worry, shame, guilt, despair-and find a way to get through it.  As I read on, all the characters grew on me and I really wanted the best for them in the end.  The multiple narratives of the story did take some getting used to but I really enjoyed the writing. This book was not what I was expecting since I thought it would be more of a broader view of the  conditions in China but I ended up really liking the revealing family story I got instead.

 I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


  1. I really like the sound of this. I've read Wild Swans which covers this from the non-fiction point of you but haven't read much fiction set in this time. Have you read Dreams of Joy by Lisa See?

  2. This sounds like an interesting read, wonderful review.

  3. I read The Samurai's Garden years ago and loved it, but haven't read anything else by her. I may have to give this one a try.

  4. I have read Dreams of Joy and really liked it :)