The BookBrowse Review

Published June 9, 2021

ISSN: 1930-0018

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  • Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson , et al (rated 5/5)

Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Speculative, Alt. History

Swimming Back to Trout River
Swimming Back to Trout River
by Linda Rui Feng

Hardcover (11 May 2021), 272 pages.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN-13: 9781982129392

A lyrical novel set against the backdrop of China's Cultural Revolution that follows a father's quest to reunite his family before his precocious daughter's momentous birthday, which Garth Greenwell calls "one of the most beautiful debuts I've read in years."

How many times in life can we start over without losing ourselves?

In the summer of 1986 in a small Chinese village, ten-year-old Junie receives a momentous letter from her parents, who had left for America years ago: her father promises to return home and collect her by her twelfth birthday. But Junie's growing determination to stay put in the idyllic countryside with her beloved grandparents threatens to derail her family's shared future.

What Junie doesn't know is that her parents, Momo and Cassia, are newly estranged from one another in their adopted country, each holding close private tragedies and histories from the tumultuous years of their youth during China's Cultural Revolution. While Momo grapples anew with his deferred musical ambitions and dreams for Junie's future in America, Cassia finally begins to wrestle with a shocking act of brutality from years ago. In order for Momo to fulfill his promise, he must make one last desperate attempt to reunite all three members of the family before Junie's birthday—even if it means bringing painful family secrets to light.

"A beautifully written, poignant exploration of family, art, culture, immigration, and most of all, love," (Jean Kwok, New York Times bestselling author of Searching for Sylvie Lee) Swimming Back to Trout River weaves together the stories of Junie, Momo, Cassia, and Dawn—a talented violinist from Momo's past—while depicting their heartbreak and resilience, tenderly revealing the hope, compromises, and abiding ingenuity that make up the lives of immigrants.

The publisher was unable to provide an excerpt of this book.


An uncommon, character-focused immigration story set against the backdrop of China's Cultural Revolution.

Print Article Publisher's View   

Linda Rui Feng's first novel, Swimming Back to Trout River, is a powerful meditation on the ties that bind us within history, geography and community, told through the lens of four primary characters: Cassia, Momo, Junie and Dawn. The strength of the novel doesn't lie in the dramatic events that underpin the characters' lives — the Cultural Revolution, immigration, heartbreaking tragedies and individual struggles — but rather, in the simple presentation of their existences unfolding naturally through interactions with each other and the world.

Feng provides a guide to an "untranslatable" word that encompasses the overall philosophy, theme and effect of this book: yuanfen, which acknowledges an "unknowability in the workings of the universe," implying that there is an "invisible mesh" that loosely binds people and circumstances. It is precisely this unknowable quality that infuses the novel — while events occur and characters interact with one another, it is impossible for the reader to predict what will happen, or what has happened in the past. Cassia and Momo may be husband and wife, Junie may be their daughter, and Dawn may be Momo's old college friend, but the importance of these labels is eroded into the larger "mesh" that ties them all together, even when they are apart. The rifts are not just across countries, but also in the expectations that they have, as husband and wife, as first loves, as parents wishing for a physically ideal child. Their interactions unfold and fall into place naturally to culminate in a surprisingly violent, yet gently presented conclusion.

We are drawn into the characters' lives, but they don't follow traditional dramatic arcs or narratives. There is no exposition, climax, denouement, primary struggle or key character development. Instead, the story reflects the natural ebbs and flows, the minor entanglements and ripple-effect impacts that each person has upon each other as the moments of life unfold. In this sense, it is surprising that Feng manages to keep the reader's attention throughout, but this is accomplished through the care and thoughtfulness in her writing, and the subtle love and respect that we come to feel for the characters. These elements draw us back to keep reading Feng's beautiful phrases and to keep wondering with interest what will happen next.

Swimming Back to Trout River is also a rare immigration story that forgoes traditional tropes and does not romanticize or sensationalize one part of the journey at the expense of presenting the complex whole of each individual character. The journeys that Cassia, Momo and Dawn take from China to the United States almost end up becoming minor details, serving as a backdrop to the more important and interesting quiet development of their lives. This is also the case with Junie — her congenital defects and life in a rural Chinese village are neither overdramatized nor exoticized. Rather, she is just a young girl growing up and coming into her own sense of independence and free will. While there are a number of dramatic events that occur throughout — after all, they are living through the Cultural Revolution — the focus is on Cassia, Momo, Junie and Dawn — their simple existences, presented without justification.

Reviewed by Jennifer Hon Khalaf

New York Times
With lean prose and assured storytelling, this debut novel describes a family fractured by geography, ambition and the ripple effects of China’s tumultuous 20th-century history.

Sensitively exploring themes of grief, hope and resilience, Swimming Back to Trout River is a symphony of a novel that is operatic in scope and elevated by Feng’s artful writing.

Publishers Weekly
[S]triking...Feng captures humor and grief in equal measures...and she elegantly references Chinese concepts of fate and luck while building toward a poignant conclusion. This resonates from page one.

Library Journal
Hard to put down, this beautifully written novel is filled with optimism…Feng makes her mark in this promising debut, and she successfully weaves in several unexpected plot twists as the narrative unfolds, leaving readers to long for a sequel.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
With disarmingly quiet prose, Feng digs beneath Cassia's and Momo's reluctance to mine their emotional depths as they struggle to grasp their individual experiences as well as their fractured relationship. Filled with tragedy yet touched with life-affirming passion.

Booklist (starred review)
Feng's lithe debut moves with grace from Communist China to San Francisco and the Great Plains, and from the 1960s to the 1980s, as it follows four interlocked lives...With the lightest of touches, Feng vividly portrays the experience of living in China during Mao's rule as well as the pressures of being a new immigrant. Looking deeply into the 'invisible mesh' that links her characters' lives, Feng weaves a plot both surprising and inevitable, with not a word to spare.

Author Blurb Jean Kwok, author of Searching for Sylvie Lee and Girl in Translation
Linda Rui Feng's Swimming Back to Trout River is a beautifully written, poignant exploration of family, art, culture, immigration and most of all, love. I was swept away by Feng's fierce intelligence and keen insight even as her characters captured my heart with their tender hopes and bold actions. A gorgeous book that I couldn't put down.

Author Blurb Garth Greenwell, author of Cleanness and What Belongs to You
What can account for the astonishing emotional force of this debut novel? Maybe it's that Linda Rui Feng understands her characters with an intimacy one seldom encounters, or the sense one has that she loves them so much. Or maybe it's Feng's exceedingly rare gift for putting language to feelings so profound, and so exquisitely observed, that they escape all readymade names. Everything in this gorgeously orchestrated novel surprises, everything outraces expectation. Swimming Back to Trout River is one of the most beautiful debuts I have read in years.

Author Blurb Peter Ho Davies, author of The Fortunes
Swimming Back to Trout River is notable for the grace of its prose and the harmony of its intertwined narratives, but the essential 'beat' of this wonderful fiction is the heartbeat of its characters, so richly and lovingly brought to life.

Print Article Publisher's View  

Classical Music and the Cultural Revolution

Painting of Ludwig van BeethovenIn Swimming Back to Trout River, Dawn and Momo are united by their love of music during the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution, particularly Western classical music. There is a special significance attached to a bust of Beethoven within the novel. Beethoven was seen as a revolutionary symbol throughout 20th century China, since his personal hardships resonated with Chinese cultural ideals about struggle and triumph. Yet, Beethoven, along with all other Western music, was banned during the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

Prior to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, there was much cultural interchange between China and the West, with Shanghai dubbed "the Paris of the East" as early as 1869, and the introduction of Western-style orchestras in 1879. The growing interest and fusion of Western and traditional Eastern styles of music was brought to a sudden halt with the advent of the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution was a sociopolitical purge that sought to establish a radical proletariat by stamping out any signs of intellectualism, bourgeoisie tendencies, or "old" ways of thinking. It was brought about by Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Communist Party, in an attempt to preserve Chinese communism by eliminating any other belief systems or cultures, including not just Western influences, but also traditional Eastern beliefs that predated Maoism.

At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution when it was at its most radical, both Western and Classical Chinese music were attacked for being anti-proletarian. These attacks were instigated by the Red Guards, a group of youths that were mobilized and militarized by Mao Zedong in the early years. Music in general, even traditional Chinese music, was believed to be characteristic of the bourgeoisie — and if it was Western music, that was an even more insidious form of anti-Communist sentiment. Listening to Western music was seen as a form of rebellion, and in the most extreme instances, Western music lovers faced the risk of execution. The only acceptable form was pre-approved music that conformed to Maoist revolutionary ideology. People who strayed from pre-approved cultural artworks and belief systems were dubbed "class enemies" and were socially ostracized or even physically harmed. Lu Hongen, conductor and timpanist for the Shanghai Symphony, was arrested for espousing pro-Western, anti-Communist views, and he is said to have asked his cellmate to "go to Beethoven's grave ... and tell him that his Chinese disciple was humming the Missa solemnis as he went to his execution."

The revolutionary fervor that sparked the Cultural Revolution began to ebb in 1968 with the dissolution of the Red Guards, and by 1969, there was some space for cultural performance. Chinese traditional music was permitted if it could be given a revolutionary sheen, but the prohibition on Western music was still staunchly maintained. It was only upon the death of Mao Zedong on September 9, 1976, that the Cultural Revolution came to an end. In March 1977, the Beijing Central Philharmonic Orchestra performed Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and the concert was played over the radio. The event is remembered for breaking a silence that had lasted for over a decade.

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis, 1820 by Joseph Karl Stieler

Filed under People, Eras & Events

By Jennifer Hon Khalaf

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