Sam Meekings's debut novel, Under Fishbone Clouds, is a quiet and thoughtful tale that follows the marriage of Bian Yuying and Hou Jinyi for over 54 years, from 1946 through 2000. In telling their story, Meekings mixes the beauty of Chinese culture with the brutality of its historyfamine, disease, Civil War, Japanese occupation, and the Cultural Revolution led by Mao Zedongwhile illustrating, with great care and craftsmanship, how the events in life shape our needs and behaviors, almost imperceptibly, as we grow older. The uncertainty of the times, and the expectation of loss subtly change how his characters relate to one another and, in time, even the landscape seems to help mould distinct personalities. Meekings's craftsmanship is remarkable, and his characters are interesting and believable throughout the entire novelthey are introspective without being overly cerebral, and their thoughts (for example, Jinyi's conclusion that, "there's a hole through which my life is leaking") are inviting to readers.
The story's narrator is also delightfully different; Zao Jun, the Kitchen God, has made a bet with the Jade Emperor that he can "fathom the working of a single human heart" and so he chooses to follow the hearts of Bian Yuying and Hou Jinyi throughout their lives so that he might eventually win the bet and earn his freedom. As a way of trying to understand how the human heart works, The Kitchen God tells ancient Chinese stories, interweaving beautiful, mythical tales with contemplative reflections and musings. He recites poems, consults with ancient writers about the nature of love, and familiarizes readers with Chinese philosophical traditions while relating it all back to the love story between Bian Yuying and Hou Jinyi in relevant ways.
Meekings avoids overly dramatic or sappy romance, and instead tackles questions about the true nature of love: sacrifice, identity and storytelling, and the act of naming things and remembering. Though time is treated linearly in the novel, characters echo behaviors of their ancestors, which add a layer of poignancy to his writing. His use of language is beautiful and vivid, and on more than one occasion, I found myself repeating his sentences out loud to savor them. In one such example, Yuying notices:
The scrunch of leaves underfoot; lone, soaring birds; abandoned temples, empty villages; moonlight seeping under doors and through the cracks in the walls or reflected in the swell of a riverall of these images had become entwined with her new home, with the endless stretch of empty land on either side. Yuying clung to the old verses to make her new life seem more bearable, to try and slough off her loneliness and regret. She told herself she was not the only one. In the most minute of details, the poets seemed to have found the truth about the whole world; inside the slightest of prized-open atoms, there are whole universes.
While in another, more embarrassed moment, Jinyi " looked down at his shadow, noticing how it had dribbled down around his feet like an embarrassing accident." Under Fishbone Clouds is at once an examination of the nature of love and the human heart, a survey of 20th century Chinese history, an introduction to Chinese mythology and philosophy, and a poetic work of contemporary fiction. It is one of the best books I've read in a while, and will surely only get better upon a second reading. I highly recommend it!
This review is from the January 13, 2011 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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