The waywardness of history and human emotion are impressively detailed in a popular Chinese writer's US debut: a first novel (originally published in Taiwan in the early '90s) that describes the struggle of two families to live and love in modern China.
Set in Silver City, a provincial town where salt is mined, the story opens with a mass execution in 1951 by the Communists. Almost all the men of the clan of Li are killed, and with their deaths, the renowned family compound falls into disrepair. Fifteen years later, the destruction is complete when Red Guards destroy its ancient twin arches and locust tree. The author's story of the Li family in the preceding years, and of Li Naizhi, the only Li male who escaped, seamlessly blends period detail (sedan chairs, embroidered clothing of the 1920s, etc.) and historical fact. Li Naizhi escapes because he's a Communist who joined the Party as a teenagerafter he saw his high-school principal executed in 1927 for working with peasants. As Li Naizhi advances in the Party, his uncle, the clan's leader, Li Yi, struggles to maintain the family's mines and prevail against the takeover bids of American-educated entrepreneur Bai Rude. The men continue their rivalry until the Communists assume power and Bai Rude and his wife flee China, though his daughter, Bai Quiyaun, stays behind and marries Li Naizhi, her high-school sweetheart. She shares his triumphs (he becomes a minister) and his defeatsnamely the reeducation of the Cultural Revolution, which eventually separates them and drives her to suicide. The patriarchs' personal lives are equally complicated, as wives arrange for concubines to provide heirs, then murderously retaliate; and a Li relative becomes both a Buddhist nun and a Communist spy. When Li Naizhi's eldest son, a historian, visits Silver City in the 1980s, little remains of it.
An impressively nuanced reminder not only of the terrible toll of Chinese history, but of how fiction can illuminate it with portraits of individuals caught in its currents.