Today's Top Picks

The ColonyClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Audrey Magee

Summary

It is the summer of 1979. An English painter travels to a small island off the west coast of Ireland. Mr. Lloyd takes the last leg by curragh, though boats with engines are available and he doesn't much like the sea. But he wants the authentic experience, to be changed by this place, to let its quiet and light fill him, give him room to create.

He doesn't know that a Frenchman follows close behind. Masson has visited the island for many years, studying their language. He is fiercely protective of their isolation; it is essential to exploring his theories of language preservation and identity.

But the people who live on this rock―three miles long and half a mile wide―have their own views on what is being recorded, what is being taken, and what ought to be given in return. Over the summer, each of them― from great-grandmother Bean Uí Fhloinn, to widowed Mairéad, to fifteen-year-old James, who is determined to avoid the life of a fisherman―will wrestle with their own values and desires. Meanwhile, all over Ireland, violence is erupting. And there is blame enough to go around.

An expertly woven portrait of character and place, a stirring investigation into yearning to find one's own way, and an unflinchingly political critique of the long, seething cost of imperialism, Audrey Magee's The Colony is a novel that transports, that celebrates beauty and connection, and that reckons with the inevitable ruptures of independence.

BookBrowse Review

The Colony opens with Mr Lloyd, a London artist, being transported to a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) island in a hand-rowed currach, eschewing the more convenient passenger ferry. This attempt at immersing himself in the local customs results in the regurgitation of his breakfast. A rather innocuous episode, it could nevertheless be read as symbolic of much larger issues that erupt when one culture gate-crashes another: exploitation, dilution of indigenous identity, conflict — all of which are examined by Magee in this discomfiting narrative.

Lloyd is traveling to the nameless island in search of solitude and inspiration; the painter's imagination is freighted with clichés of "raw, rugged, violent beauty," conveying all the innocence — ignorance? — of the outsider. The island's undesignated status in the novel may itself be significant: It implies stolen identity as a result of foreign dilution, or perhaps signifies that it is representative of all colonized habitats. Stylistically, Lloyd's pretensions are wrought through Magee's prose, which shifts into lyrical columns to illustrate her protagonist's interior monologue, punctuated with italicized captions — Self-portrait: alone, for example — that he imagines for each vignette.

The Englishman's hosts on the sparsely-populated island, the Gillans, are a multi-generational Irish-speaking family. They immediately have their visitor's measure, with the youngest family member, James, denouncing Lloyd's patronizing bearing as "obnoxious." Lloyd's disagreeable disposition is brought further to the fore when he discovers that the cottage next door has been rented for the summer by a French linguist, Jean-Pierre Masson (JP), who is working on a thesis founded on the moribund Irish language. Neither incomer has been forewarned of the other's presence, and they immediately clash, much like "[t]wo bulls in a field." Both become territorial: Lloyd because he had imagined himself to have some sort of exclusive entitlement to the island (at one point the family has to remind him that he "rented the cottage ... Not the island"); JP because he perceives the proximity of an English-speaking inhabitant as something that will skew his research and speed up the decline of an already diminishing language. The interlopers' conflict is weighted with the baggage of history, which the Gillans astutely recognize: "They've been squabbling over our turf for centuries."

As the story unfolds, it is revealed that JP's Algerian mother was abused by her French partner — this may account for the linguist's abhorrence of foreign influence. He even goes so far as to insist on addressing James as Séamus (the boy's Irish name), against the young man's express wishes. With all the blinkered arrogance of the colonist, JP pillages his subjects — irrespective of the standpoint of the colonized — while, paradoxically, earnest in his pursuit of preserving their linguistic heritage.

Teenager James becomes a pivotal individual in the novel, epitomizing the impact of external influence. Unlike his great-grandmother, pipe-smoking monoglot Bean Uí Fhloinn, who "has no English," James's language is thoroughly Anglicized. For JP, Lloyd's residence on the island means that the "linguistic evolution" — which he acknowledges is taking place — will alternate to a "sudden and violent" monolingualism in the form of English. Meanwhile, James becomes an apprentice to Lloyd, exhibiting a raw talent the mentor himself does not possess. For James, whose father and grandfather both drowned while out fishing, it is deemed "[b]etter to be an artist drawing death, instead of being death." James's desire to break with tradition does, therefore, lend some credence to JP's assertion that outside influences exacerbate the death of tradition. Interestingly, Magee chooses not to use speech punctuation; consequently, all communication — verbal or internal — becomes an organic element of the tapestry of the island: Traditional language and behaviors intermingle with incoming influences — including the two foreign visitors. What becomes clear is that both men have mythologized the community, consumed by their own agendas — perhaps the hallmark of the colonist.

But the two summer inhabitants are not the only source of territorial conflict in The Colony. Stark, bulletin-style accounts of real-life atrocities on the mainland coldly explode from the page in chapters that are brief, factual, clinical. They are a forceful reminder that this is 1979, when terrorist acts carried out by both Loyalist paramilitaries and the Provisional IRA are at their peak. Attacks are savage and frequent; each chapter's end is marked by a jolting reminder of their existence. Historical fiction and historical fact are juxtaposed, indicative of the nature of history itself. And at the root of this brutal bloodshed is colonization, enmeshed in the long and complicated history of England's violation of Ireland.

Traditionally, the island is a literary trope used to represent a refuge, and a simpler, purer way of life. Magee unmasks this misconception. The pace of life may be slower and more detached, as echoed in her unhurried, dispassionate prose, but is never impervious to infiltration; the aggressors are never too far off. After the cultural looters have gleaned their treasures, the islanders, and others like them, are left to navigate the aftermath.

Book reviewed by Amanda Ellison

Beyond the Book:
Colonization and the Irish Language

Ogham stone in Ireland, with vertical line down center and straight and diagonal lines on either side In Audrey Magee's The Colony, one of the characters dedicates his career to salvaging a language that is under threat of extinction: Irish. The source of his research is a multi-generational family, the oldest of whom speaks Irish exclusively, while the youngest is very much Anglicized. This family's linguistic patterns are representative of the continuing decline of the Irish language.

But it wasn't always this way: Irish (or Gaelic, as it is sometimes described) is part of the Celtic language family. The Irish variant developed during the Celtic migrations to Ireland from mainland Europe that took place around 500 BCE.

Written Irish can be traced back to the ogham inscriptions of the 4th century CE. Ogham is sometimes likened to the runic alphabet, consisting of 20 letters composed of lines (notches) on either side of or straddling a continuous line (flesc). These notches would be incised into stone, or sometimes wood. The word "ogham" derives from the Irish warrior-god Ogma — the god of eloquence.

Despite Norse invasion and settlement starting around 800 AD and Anglo-Norse colonization starting in 1169, the Irish language remained dominant in the region until the early 1600s. It was in the 1500s that Irish started to face real threats. First came the Tudor and Stuart conquests and their establishment of plantations (1534-1610); then came the Cromwellian Settlement of 1654 and the Williamite war (1689-91); and finally the Penal Laws of 1695 (these laws meant that Catholics could not enter professions such as law or medicine, hold land or speak the Irish language). This sequence of events heavily impacted the native language. As English became more entrenched as the language of commerce in the towns, Irish became marginalized to the poorer rural areas. When the Penal Laws were relaxed in the mid-1700s, many Irish people still considered English a means of social and economic advancement, thus setting in motion a trend that was to gain momentum. From this, the Irish language became increasingly associated with poverty and deprivation in the collective consciousness. In 1800, the English/Irish language split was roughly balanced — but this was not to last.

Severe acceleration of the Irish language's decline began in the 19th century, in the form of three key historical events: the establishment of English-speaking national schools (set up in 1831), the Great Famine and mass emigration. The famine of the 1840s claimed over one million Irish lives from a population of approximately eight million. Many of the victims were Irish-speaking inhabitants of rural Ireland. This was also a period of mass emigration — largely triggered by famine — to the United States and mainland Britain.

By the end of the 19th century, scholars and the clergy began to realize that Irish was in a vulnerable situation, acknowledging that something of cultural value was at risk of being lost forever. Consequently, the Gaelic League was founded in 1893, aimed at de-Anglicizing the language by promoting the use of Irish in everyday life. Patrick Pearse, League member, famously echoed the sentiments of the organization in the phrase "Tír gan teanga, tír gan an am" ("A country without a language is a country without a soul"). By this point, however, the gravitational pull of English was perhaps irreversible. With the introduction of radio in the 1920s and TV in the 1950s, and with most forms of employment requiring a working knowledge of English, its influence in Irish affairs was indomitable.

Today, Irish is a language that is struggling for survival. The 2011 census encouragingly revealed that 41% of Irish citizens do speak Irish — yet this figure may be somewhat misleading, as this number does not account for degrees of fluency or language use. By 2016, the 2011 figure had fallen to about 30%. While it is difficult to envisage widespread rejuvenation becoming a reality, efforts continue to be made towards revitalization through legislative and social action. It has been reported that the greatest factor determining survival is "intergenerational transmission" — the language risks dying alongside its elderly speakers.

Modern Ogham stone in The Diamond area of Lifford, County Donegal, Ireland. From bottom to top: DONEGAL CO CL (Donegal County Council). Photo by Kenneth Allen (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Return of Faraz AliClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Aamina Ahmad

Summary

Not since childhood has Faraz returned to the Mohalla, in Lahore's walled inner city, where women continue to pass down the art of courtesan from mother to daughter. But he still remembers the day he was abducted from the home he shared with his mother and sister there, at the direction of his powerful father, who wanted to give him a chance at a respectable life. Now Wajid, once more dictating his fate from afar, has sent Faraz back to Lahore, installing him as head of the Mohalla police station and charging him with a mission: to cover up the violent death of a young girl.

It should be a simple assignment to carry out in a marginalized community, but for the first time in his career, Faraz finds himself unable to follow orders. As the city assails him with a jumble of memories, he cannot stop asking questions or winding through the walled city's labyrinthine alleyways chasing the secrets—his family's and his own—that risk shattering his precariously constructed existence.

Profoundly intimate and propulsive, The Return of Faraz Ali is a spellbindingly assured first novel that poses a timeless question: Whom do we choose to protect, and at what price?

BookBrowse Review

In Aamina Ahmad's debut, The Return of Faraz Ali, the eponymous character is a police inspector in Lahore, Pakistan in 1968. As the book opens, he receives a call from an important politician saying there's been an "accident" in Shahi Mohalla, the red-light district of the city. The man states he knows Faraz is someone he can trust to ensure the "mess" is cleaned up "properly." Faraz, who's used to this kind of assignment, agrees, although he has a few qualms: The important politician is his father, Wajid; and Faraz hasn't set foot in Shahi Mohalla since he was five, when Wajid took him from his mother, a tawaif (sex worker). Faraz discovers the accident is in reality the brutal murder of a child who was being groomed to become a sex worker herself, and he finds he can't bring himself to follow Wajid's orders.

From the novel's description, readers would be forgiven for believing they're picking up a standard police procedural. But actually, there's a lot going on throughout this complex and engrossing narrative, with the criminal investigation being a minor facet when all's said and done. Much of the plot focuses on Faraz as he struggles to understand his place in a corrupt and often brutal society, and to define the type of person he wants to be. The other major plotline follows his older sister, Rozina, who rose from a common tawaif (see Beyond the Book) to famous actress, but is now past her prime and, like her brother, striving to define a path forward. Both characters are richly drawn; the loneliness of each is palpable, as is the longing they have for meaningful connections that always seem just out of reach. Each one's journey is heartbreaking and unforgettable. I was particularly intrigued by the women portrayed throughout the novel, most of whom are viewed with disdain by Pakistani society — throwaway people who nevertheless find a way to survive. A tertiary plotline is set 25 years earlier, during World War II, as Walid is incarcerated in a prisoner-of-war camp; these sections serve to illuminate Walid's character and explain his relationship with his son (it is unusual that a client would care about the well-being of the child he had with a sex worker).

In addition to intriguing characters, Ahmad brilliantly illustrates the time and place in which the action occurs. The novel opens with the 1968 riots opposing the dictatorial regime of President Ayub Khan, and later, focuses on the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War which saw East Pakistan separate to become a sovereign nation. There's an undercurrent of political discord that seeps through every page of the book, imbuing the plot with an added level of tension. Lahore's gritty atmosphere is vividly described, really bringing the scenes to life.

This remarkable debut has a lot of depth, but the downside is that it's not a quick read. I didn't feel like it dragged or was a slog in any way, but it also didn't have much forward momentum, its overwhelming emphasis being on character development.

I can imagine The Return of Faraz Ali receiving mixed reviews, because those who pick it up expecting a detective novel will likely be disappointed. Readers searching for a truly excellent work of literary fiction, though, will almost certainly enjoy the author's nuanced portrayal of her abundantly flawed characters, as well as her powerful depiction of time and place. Although it requires a certain amount of patience, it's one of the best debuts I've come across in a long time, and I highly recommend it.

Book reviewed by Kim Kovacs

Beyond the Book:
Tawaifs

Promotional poster from Bollywood film TawaifAamina Ahmad's debut novel, The Return of Faraz Ali, takes place in 1968 in Lahore's red-light district, and several of the characters are tawaifs — sex workers.

"Tawaif" comes from the Urdu word "tauf," which means to go round and round. While the term is considered derogatory now, originally it was one of respect for a highly-skilled courtesan in what was then North India. These women were well-regarded and generally moved in the highest circles, including the royal court. They were entertainers proficient in music and dancing, valued for their ability to socialize with the elite men of the time. They had wealth, power and prestige, and were considered the last word in etiquette; having a tawaif attend one's celebration was a status symbol.

Tawaif was a hereditary profession, and girls were trained for it from an early age — typically by their mothers. They would begin their studies in music and dance as early as age five and would be performing publicly by 10 or 12. In their early teens, those with talent and beauty would be attached to a wealthy sponsor, who'd generally look after the girl's entire family. She was treated like her patron's widow if he predeceased her.

The height of their popularity seems to have come in the late 16th century, when the Mughals sought to consolidate their control of North India and had their capital in the walled city of Lahore (known today as Lahore's Old City). This included a residential neighborhood outside the main fort called Shahi Mohalla ("Royal Neighborhood"). It is here that many tawaifs established kothas — a sort of salon where they'd entertain the high-ranking men of the area.

Lahore came under attack many times over the ensuing decades, and eventually, most of the tawaifs relocated to other towns. In 1799, however, Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh captured Lahore and reestablished the royal customs instituted by the Mughals, including bringing tawaifs back to court. In 1802, Ranjit Singh even fell in love with and married a tawaif named Moran, which spurred some controversy. After his death in 1839, his successor, Hira Singh Dogra, built a market in the neighborhood and renamed it "Heera Mandi," or "Market of Hira Singh." "Heera" also means "diamond," and some believe this was a reference to the tawaifs of the area who were said to be as beautiful as the gem.

The Sikh Empire came to an end after two wars with British troops (1845-1849), after which the area was controlled by the British East India Company, which had established a massive trading venture there. The tawaifs lost their royal patronages as a result. Shahi Mohalla retained its reputation as a center for the performing arts, although the patrons were now wealthy British administrators and soldiers rather than Indian royalty. While no longer esteemed as they once were, the tawaifs generally continued to enjoy a high standard of living.

All this changed during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, when Indian rebels fought against the British East India Company. The tawaifs played an important role behind the scenes, providing shelter and opening their kothas as meeting places. Some were more active — a courtesan from Lucknow named Azeezunbai was said to have met the British armed with pistols. After successfully putting down the rebellion, the British retaliated by confiscating the women's property and destroying their kothas.

In addition, as the British strengthened their control of India, they brought their wives, who in turn brought their Victorian values. Female chastity and domesticity were the ideals, and tawaifs, as public performers, became equated with prostitution. The kothas were no longer seen as havens for art, music and conversation, but mere brothels. Christian missionaries launched a movement to punish the tawaifs, enforcing strict regulation on what they could and couldn't do. This had a dampening effect on business and public opinion, and with few options available to them, most turned to prostitution to survive.

The fortunes of the tawaifs did not improve after British rule was terminated in 1947, and today most live in poverty, barely scraping by. They did, however, become a heavily romanticized subject of many Bollywood movies and Pakistani dramas beginning in the 1950s. They're typically portrayed as either highly sexualized vamps or prostitutes with a heart of gold, their characters "doomed to stay unmarried, and invariably achiev[ing] redemption only through death," according to The Hindu.

Movie poster for Bollywood film Tawaif (1985), courtesy of IMDB

The WondersClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Elena Medel

Summary

Already an international sensation, The Wonders follows Maria and Alicia through the streets of Madrid, from job to job and apartment to apartment, as they search for meaning and stability in a precarious world and unknowingly trace each other's footfalls across time.

Maria moved to the city in 1969, leaving her daughter with her family but hoping to save enough to take care of her one day. She worked as a housekeeper, then a caregiver, and later a cleaner, and somehow she was always taking care of someone else. Two generations later, in 2018, Alicia was working at the snack shop in Madrid's Atocha train station when it overflowed with protestors and strikers. All women—and so many of them—protesting what? Alicia wasn't entirely sure. She couldn't have known that Maria was among them. Alicia didn't have time for marches; she was just trying to hang on until the end of her shift, when she might meet someone to take her away for a few hours, to make her forget.

Readers will fall in love with Maria and Alicia, whose stories finally converge in the chaos of the protests, the weight of the years of silence hanging thickly in the air between them. The Wonders brings half a century of the feminist movement to life, and launches an inimitable new voice in fiction. Medel's lyrical sensibility reveals her roots as a poet, but her fast-paced and expansive storytelling show she's a novelist ahead of her time.

BookBrowse Review

Spanish poet Elena Medel's debut novel The Wonders (translated by Lizzie Davis and Thomas Bunstead) flows on the thrum of two women's internal lives. Maria and Alicia, a grandmother and granddaughter who have never met, are linked by the vital force that money (and the lack thereof) represents to them, through the two generations that set them apart. As Maria leaves her small-town neighborhood for blue-collar jobs in Madrid, Alicia unwittingly follows in her footsteps in a different timeline, repeating the beats of a life dictated by poverty and working-class womanhood.

The novel's fulcrum lies in the connection between these women's life-journeys and a crucial moment in Spain's feminist history: the 2018 Women's March in Madrid (see Beyond the Book). In the 1970s, after she is abandoned by a man who got her pregnant, Maria arrives in Madrid reeling from her circumstances: the shame of unmarried motherhood in Francoist Spain, the obligation of tending to her child and her family's shunning of her. She edits her life in her head — she revises mistakes, "corrects a few gestures and almost all the decisions." Decades later, Alicia arrives in the city bitter and full of disdain — for herself and for a life that was promised to her and then snatched away.

Both complex characters, Maria and Alicia are opposed to one another in their choices and how they respond to their individual "falls." Maria follows the drudgery of her life, making do with a partner who doesn't respect her mind, before ultimately becoming politically conscious and engaging with the feminist movement. Alicia slips into the role of an uninvolved bystander in her own existence. She "doesn't enjoy her life, but her life keeps her occupied," as she resorts to promiscuous wanderings, even as she has settled with a husband she finds mediocre, and works shifts at a convenience store with a kind of enraged complacency, night after night, day after day.

Although apart in age and historical context, both women experience money as a central driving factor, forever a reminder of what their lives could have been had they not been poor. As an older Maria says early on in the novel, "You need money even to protest."

The Wonders comes together more as a series of stark, arresting vignettes than as one story. But what is audacious and brilliant about Medel's debut is the unique style she employs. The voice of the omniscient narrator interjects during Alicia and Maria's internal monologues, and the effect is that of seamless stream-of-consciousness-like narration. One particular chapter has the narrator giving way to "the voice of [Alicia's] memory," which unfolds like something that Alicia may be telling herself, relating the story of how she once had the comfortable life she felt entitled to and later came to work in Madrid.

The book's magic lies in the way Medel tells the characters' stories jumbled up, bit by bit. As the reader, you have to arrange in your mind the puzzle pieces that are deliberately presented in disorder, so that only your imagination holds the complete picture after the final delivery. Reminiscent in parts of Elena Ferrante and Virginia Woolf, Medel's The Wonders is a stunning debut about the intersection between poverty and womanhood.

Book reviewed by Tasneem Pocketwala

Beyond the Book:
A Brief History of Feminist Organizing in Spain

A significant part of Elena Medel's The Wonders is devoted to the feminist awakening of the character Maria. She grows up in a poor neighborhood during Spanish dictator Francisco Franco's rule in the 1960s and early '70s, a time of strict gender roles. As Spain moves out of the Francoist era and comes to a new threshold of feminist liberation and agency, so does Maria, carving out a path towards becoming a feminist activist in her own right.

Women holding banner during 2018 Spanish women's strike in Zaragoza, Spain

Modern Spanish feminism has developed amid specific historical contexts — through a civil war, an authoritarian regime and the country's democratization process. It has been shaped as a response to a culture where patriarchal systems and concepts around womanhood are deeply influenced by Catholicism. But its development has also been affected significantly by the general political turmoil the country has experienced.

Clandestine politics: Feminist consciousness in Francoist Spain

According to an article by Monica Threlfall in the New Left Review, under the Franco regime, citizens were denied the right "to virtually all forms of meeting and association," making it "much more difficult for the ideas and actions launched by women in other parts of Europe and North America to catch on in Spain."

Despite this, anti-Franco clandestine politics among women were underway during the latter years of the dictatorship, with organization happening at the neighborhood level. As Threlfall writes, these mobilizations were initially "designed to bring women who were not part of the labor movement into the anti-Franco struggle," rather than to forge an understanding of gender issues. But women in these groups soon began to think about their own personal issues and experiences, leading to consciousness-raising of their own political situation, separate from men.

The transition period

After the re-establishment of constitutional monarchy and the death of Franco in 1975, Spain went through a transition period as a process of democratization began. During this time, Spanish women began to organize a feminist movement that shared ideals and goals with American feminism. Various groups were formed that worked on behalf of women's issues.

The feminist movement in Spain didn't have it easy. Gender discrimination was still deeply rooted in the political system of the post-Franco era. However, during the '70s and '80s, some changes favoring women and girls' rights were successfully introduced, including divorce, equality in public education between boys and girls, and other equality measures. Other legal rights, such as the right to abortion, would still remain out of reach for decades to come.

Contemporary feminism in Spain

Contemporary Spanish feminism is mainly characterized by the denouncing of institutional violence and inequality against women. Women's rights in recent years have been threatened by the rise of the far-right political party Vox, which according to Laura Mannering, "casts the feminist movement as a radical enemy of traditional family values."

Young people in digital spaces have been at the forefront of contemporary feminism in Spain, which has been spurred on by the global #MeToo movement, as well as outrage over the judicial verdict following the gang-rape of an 18-year-old girl, called the "Wolfpack" (La Manada) case.

On March 8, 2018, as many as 5.3 million women in Spain (over 20% of the female population) joined a union-backed 24-hour strike that demanded an end to gender discrimination and inequality. Marches were held all across the country, including in Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia. The slogan for the strike was, "Si nosotras paramos, se para el mundo" ("If we stop, the world stops"). Medel places this historic event as a pivotal point in The Wonders.

March during women's strike on March 8, 2018 in Zaragoza, Spain. Photo by Gaudiramone (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Four Treasures of the SkyClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Jenny Tinghui Zhang

Summary

Daiyu never wanted to be like the tragic heroine for whom she was named, revered for her beauty and cursed with heartbreak. But when she is kidnapped and smuggled across an ocean from China to America, Daiyu must relinquish the home and future she imagined for herself. Over the years that follow, she is forced to keep reinventing herself to survive. From a calligraphy school, to a San Francisco brothel, to a shop tucked into the Idaho mountains, we follow Daiyu on a desperate quest to outrun the tragedy that chases her. As anti-Chinese sentiment sweeps across the country in a wave of unimaginable violence, Daiyu must draw on each of the selves she has been―including the ones she most wants to leave behind―in order to finally claim her own name and story.

At once a literary tour de force and a groundbreaking work of historical fiction, Four Treasures of the Sky announces Jenny Tinghui Zhang as an indelible new voice. Steeped in untold history and Chinese folklore, this novel is a spellbinding feat.

BookBrowse Review

"…when our Chinese customers come asking for millet and green onions, buying licorice and cinnamon, I watch them with tenderness, following their movements. I miss you, and I do not even know you, I want to say to the miner, the launderer, the servant."

Lin Daiyu, the heroine of Jenny Tinghui Zhang's debut novel, Four Treasures of the Sky, ruminates on this beautiful observation as she works restocking a general store in Pierce, Idaho. The location — as well as the quote itself — is reflective of Daiyu's place in a culture of diaspora, as she has ended up thousands of miles from her seaside home in China. Pierce is just one of many stops on Daiyu's long journey trying to return home. Her deep, heart-wrenching love for the other Chinese immigrants around her is mirrored time and time again as she goes from San Francisco to Boise to Pierce in a world-spanning bildungsroman unlike any other I've read before.

To put it simply, a book like Four Treasures of the Sky is why I read historical fiction. The genre can come across as removed from the present, as irrelevant to the 21st-century world we know. But despite its 19th-century milieu, Zhang's novel is painfully germane to the present day. According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, there were overwhelmingly more hate crimes against Asians or Asian Americans in 2021 than 2020 in the United States. Despite huge leaps in civil rights and institutional diversity and inclusion, the fact is that many people of Asian descent in America continue to face discrimination and violence, just as Daiyu does in the wake of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Daiyu faces unspeakable horrors throughout the book. When she is a child nearing her teenage years, her beloved parents disappear in the night, snatched by an unseeable, unknowable force; to keep Daiyu from the same fate, her grandmother sends her from their rural haven to the bustling city district of Zhifu, disguised as a boy for safety. There, she finds work in a calligraphy school, falling in love with the artistry and purpose granted to a calligrapher by their ink and brush (see Beyond the Book). She envisions becoming a master calligrapher like Master Wang, a teacher whom she idolizes and who serves as a personification of her conscience throughout the novel. Yet this bright future is not to be. Stolen on the streets of Zhifu, Daiyu is trafficked and sold into sex slavery in San Francisco after a harrowing trip across the Pacific.

Zhang depicts Daiyu's time in a San Francisco brothel delicately but forcefully — exactly as Daiyu wields her calligraphy brush. The stories of the young women among whom she lives and works are heartbreaking, and Zhang delivers feelings of real tension and urgency as Daiyu plans her escape. Yet even outside of the brothel walls, American dangers encroach in every corner. Though Daiyu returns to her guise of a young man in Idaho, there are many examples throughout the novel of men betraying or abusing her, adding to "the burden [of being] a girl."

Despite hardship unimaginable to many, the times when Daiyu finds genuine joy in Four Treasures of the Sky filled me with happiness. She is a character one cannot help but adore, when she giggles with a friend she makes in the brothel, or when she delights in celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival with her found family. Her love of storytelling may be the best example of this joy, discovered even in a life marked by tragedy. A deep love of and respect for words is something Zhang shares with her heroine: They are both incredibly gifted wordsmiths who use their multilingualism to craft stories unconstrained by just one language. It is a pleasure and an honor to be able to read Daiyu's story — it is one that will not be forgotten.

Book reviewed by Maria Katsulos

Beyond the Book:
The Four Treasures of Chinese Calligraphy

Chinese calligrapher Sun Xinde creating calligraphy on paper with an ink brush In Four Treasures of the Sky, heroine Daiyu arrives at Master Wang's calligraphy school as an orphan looking for work. She quickly becomes his best student as she learns about the titular four treasures: brush, ink, paper and ink stone. Since the time of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420–589 CE), these items have been acknowledged in Chinese calligraphy as the "four treasures of the study." Broadly speaking, calligraphy is defined as an artistic and decorative form of handwriting. Though it would take volumes and volumes of text to trace the entire history of calligraphy in China, we can explore its general progression, and take a closer look at each of the treasures of the study.

The Chinese written language began to develop over 3,000 years ago, with pictograms and ideographs cut into jade stone or oracle bones, or cast into bronze. During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), ink and paper began to be used to create calligraphy. From early on in the art form's development, a skilled calligrapher was not only seen as a talented writer or artist; good calligraphy was thought to be indicative of a strong moral character — in Four Treasures of the Sky, Master Wang teaches his students philosophy and the importance of conducting oneself well at the same time as he teaches them how to wield the brush. The written character was even thought to resemble the calligrapher physically; a text from the Tang Dynasty (618–906 BCE) encourages making each character assume, in the words of art historian Dawn Delbanco, "the identity of a Confucian sage, strong in backbone, but spare in flesh."

The calligrapher is connected to the characters they write through the first implement: the brush. The most important element of the brush is the tip, which can be made of many different kinds of hair: deer, goat, sable and rabbit are some of the types suggested by the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art. In Four Treasures of the Sky, Master Wang says that the greatest honor a calligrapher could bequeath another is to make a brush from their newborn child's hair, guaranteeing that the child will always be connected to the art. The tactile nature of the brush has an importance that is difficult to overstate; as Delbanco puts it, "The brush becomes an extension of the writer's arm, indeed, his entire body."

Brushes, of course, are unable to create calligraphy without the next two treasures — ink and ink stone. Liquid ink for the brush is made by grinding and compressing carbon-based ink onto the solid stone, and adding water. The stone then serves as a dipping pot for the brush. The ink itself is traditionally made from lampblack, a residue created by burning pine resin or oil. The dark pigment can be molded into sticks or cakes and wetted whenever a calligrapher is ready to begin their work. This can have the advantage of making the ink easier to transport than a material that is always liquid, and also allows the individual calligrapher to control the viscosity of the ink. However, calligraphy today is often done with ink that is stored as a liquid.

Finally, the surface for calligraphy is equally important. Before paper became widely available, calligraphers also used wood, bamboo or silk (from circa 300 BCE onward). Early forms of paper were made from combinations of mulberry, hemp and bamboo — not rice, as the Orientalist term "rice paper" suggests. The paper has to be strong and flexible to stand up to different thicknesses of ink and different amounts of pressure applied by calligraphers.

Calligraphy is a form of Chinese art, scholarship and tradition. It blends utility and beauty, and its deep, long-lasting history ties modern calligraphers directly to the artists who came before them. The elevation of calligraphy as visual art in China demonstrates the importance of language in Chinese culture, and makes the art form a perfect occupation for the word-obsessed Daiyu in Four Treasures of the Sky.

Calligraphy of the Chinese calligrapher Sun Xinde. Photo by Immanuel Giel (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.