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Don't forget that we're giving away copies of Michelle Moran's The Second Empress this month!

A Hundred Flowers
by Gail Tsukiyama

Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend. - Mao Tse-Tung, 1956

When Chairman Mao encourages the scholars and intellectuals of China to share their thoughts on how to improve China, most are wary. Kai Ying's husband, always willing to take a chance, apparently sends in a letter, for he is arrested and shipped off to a labor camp. After only two letters, his family ceases to hear from him. Kai Ying and her father-in-law, Wei, team up to raise Sheng's son Tao. The little boy thinks constantly of his father. One day, remembering a story his father told him about the kapok tree in the backyard, he tries to climb it and ends up breaking his leg. The family rushes him to a hospital, but Tao risks becoming crippled if his leg doesn't heal properly. As one mishap after another befalls the family, they struggle to retain hope that they'll be reunited with Sheng once more.

The story is told through five different voices: Tao, Kai Ying, Wei, Suyin (a homeless girl who spots the family at the hospital) and Song, a friend of Wei's dead wife. In this case, there are too many cooks spoiling the soup, for five narrators in a book totaling less than three hundred pages compete rather than complement each other. The voices aren't distinctive at all, and each speaker just don't have enough time to evolve into memorable, vivid characters. Indeed, there was a dreamlike quality to the narrative that made it beautiful to read, but seemed to hold the family at an arm's length so I could never really get close to them and into their heads.

Granted, I don't know much about life in China under Chairman Mao (just what I've read in fiction, like Dreams of Joy or Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress but my general impression has been that there was scarcity, poverty, and a dearth of supplies. When Tao is rushed to the hospital for his broken leg, he's given a private room. He's described as “swallowed up” by tubes and machinery, including a heart rate monitor. This doesn't seem right for Communist China, 1958. I have trouble believing that this family – formerly wealthy, but merely 'average' (so poor) now – could afford this sort of technology, even if it had been available in Guangzhao hospitals at the time. In the entire scheme of the story, I suppose it's only a small detail, but it bothered me nonetheless.

Is this a realistic tale of life in Communist China? I'm not expert enough to say. Compared to the tales of woe I've seen in other books set in the same time period, this family's suffering seems relatively shallow, but it isn't fair to judge them for having a life less crummy than others at the time. But I definitely had trouble with the glacial pace of the narrative and the distance of the characters. Still, I'm willing to try one of Tsukiyama's earlier books – my gut instinct is that this simply isn't the best work in her oeuvre.

3 out of 5 stars

To read more about A Hundred Flowers, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the archives...today in:
2011: Exit the Actress by Priya Parmar
2010: n/a
2009: n/a
2008: My Husband's Sweethearts by Bridget Asher


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