This is the best book I’ve read so far this year. Told from the perspective of a Chinese-Canadian woman learning of her late father’s life in China during the cultural revolution, it is a riveting voyage to a place and time I didn’t know much about.
As a young girl, Marie loses her father when he leaves their family to return to China, then takes his own life in Hong Kong. Soon after that trauma, Marie’s mother offers shelter to Ai-Ming, a girl about ten years older than Marie, whose father was close friends with Marie’s father. The student protests in Tienanmen Square have recently ended and Ai-Ming, who was involved in the protests, has fled China for Canada. During the months she stays with Marie’s family, she tells the younger girl stories of their fathers’ youth in China, the music that bound them both together at the Conservatory, and a mysterious, hand-copied book that has been copied and distributed down through three generations of Ai-Ming’s family.
The narrator then takes us into the heart of these stories, not filtered through Ai-Ming’s and Marie’s perspectives but through the points of view of the people who actually lived them — Big Mother Knife, Ba Lute, Swirl, Wen the Dreamer, who live through the Japanese invasion during the Second World War and are proud to be part of the new Communist China post-war, until Mao Zedong’s dream turns against them. Their children, Sparrow and Zhuli, whose lives are forever changed when their musical careers bring them into contact with Kai (future father of the narrator Marie). These three young people, Sparrow, Zhuli, and Kai, as young artists, are targets of the Cultural Revolution, and the brutality of that revolution tears all three lives apart. The horrors of living under a totalitarian regime are depicted here with chilling precision, and the writing is beautiful. This novel won both the Governor General’s award for fiction and the Giller Prize, and the awards were richly deserved.