For the first 100 pages or so, this tale of a young woman’s growing up in the changing Taiwan of the 1970s was almost entirely lost in translation. Zhenguan is born in a fishing village that follows traditional cultural practices, and grows up in a close-knit extended family, and those early chapters consist mostly of descriptions of festivities, cultural practices, and cooking, as well as family events that don’t seem to connect to one another.
But the story finds its focus as Zhenguan comes of age, moves to the city to work, and experiences first love. I found it to be a surprisingly quick read, and the characters and their relationships feel realistic, although I am reading about them from the other side of a cultural chasm. It is, in particular, a lovely story about the importance of family. Even when Zhenguan moves away from home, her family is her community; her best friend is a cousin, even her love interest is a more distant cousin. Westerners writing about Chinese characters tend portray families as a source of antagonism and repression, so I appreciated this view from the inside, showing how the culture is supposed to work. The mix of tradition and modernity is also interesting; I especially liked the moment when Zhenguan, hiking to a mountaintop convent, wonders if the nun she’s seeking will be there – then reassures herself that if the nun is on a different mountain, she can always page her over the convent’s loudspeakers.
That said, there is clearly quite a bit lost in translating this book to English. The dialogue sometimes comes across as ridiculous (“Ah, the courtesy that is integral to the entire Chinese way of life is evident in even the smallest act”), the included song lyrics seem sentimental and banal, and there’s a major plot point (what went wrong with Daxin?) that’s never explained. I can only assume that there is some trope or cultural expectation here that needs no spelling out to readers familiar with Chinese literature. So, while I am sure this is a beautiful novel in the original Chinese, and while I somewhat enjoyed the last 2/3 of the book, it’s one I’d recommend to English speakers for academic purposes rather than casual reading.