Today I would like to briefly comment on this debut novel by Beijing-born American writer C. Pam Zhang. I have recently read it and so would like to share some first thoughts and impressions on the book, which combines two things that I hold dear: China and US literatures and cultural constructs. I am going to comment on a few themes that I found particularly compelling and well-written in the novel. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it simply represents the sensations or feelings the novel left me with at the first reading.
First and foremost, the novel reflects deeply and touchingly on language. The language (Chinese) which Lucy, the protagonist, barely understands, a shared secret between her and her mother which the girl will never fully grasp. Sounds and words that for her whole childhood she wishes to master, and characters that look like weird drawings with mysteriously powerful meanings.
But also another language (English), which Lucy feels natural to her, but which is spoken by a community that cannot and will not accept her for who she is, that will always make her feel foreign and unwelcome in her own homeland. The language she can use to communicate intimately with her sibling, Sam, her “pardner”, and which feels most natural to her. The language she will choose to use for the rest of her life.
And of course the language (Chinese) that Lucy’s mother and father speak to each other, but not as an intimate means of communication, a secret code, but rather as a fake connection, one based on half-told truths and on make-believe roots. A language that fails at the crucial moment, when Ma speaks it too fast, so that no one can truly understand her.
And again, the “language of clink and jungle” of the big city built on the promise of ‘The West’. The unintelligible languages of Natives, who are desperately left behind, picking up the pieces of the destruction created by the gold rush. The silent language of the hills and valleys of California, which speaks of a forgotten past and a tragic present/future of mindless exploitation. All these languages and silences tell the story of a place, as well as of the impossible task of a young person to make sense of her past, torn as she is between two lands — a real one and a mythical one.
The Land beyond the Ocean
Of course, over the whole novel hovers the ghost of a lost land, beyond the ocean, which slowly transforms from being the mythical origin of Ma’s powers and knowledge, to being a clear, tangible destination for the protagonists — one that is unreachable as it only exists in Ma’s tales. In fact, it is present in the novel only through the eyes of Ma, and this makes it special to Lucy: it is the link to her mother’s world which the girl desperately wishes to create, but can never fully hold.
This spoke to me about all the people I have met in my life who live far from their (or their parents’) country of birth, who dream of going back or re-establishing a link with the lost land that might never be possible, but whose hope seems to fill their eyes and hearts at times.
And then there’s the tiger, 老虎 lǎohǔ, which roams the Californian hills and scares people, which is a blessing and a terror, which is never seen yet always felt. I found this element by far the most intriguing, the most well-crafted and challenging of the novel, one that contributes to the slow but effective creation of the eerie landscape in which the protagonists move and live.
It is the tiger that will make me want to read the novel again. I want to unpack its mystery and appreciate its strength.