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Summary and book reviews of Little Gods by Meng Jin

Little Gods

by Meng Jin

Little Gods by Meng Jin X
Little Gods by Meng Jin
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     Not Yet Rated
  • Published:
    Jan 2020, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rachel Hullett
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About this Book

Book Summary

Combining the emotional resonance of Home Fire with the ambition and innovation of Asymmetry, a lyrical and thought-provoking debut novel that explores the complex web of grief, memory, time, physics, history, and selfhood in the immigrant experience, and the complicated bond between daughters and mothers.

On the night of June Fourth, a woman gives birth in a Beijing hospital alone. Thus begins the unraveling of Su Lan, a brilliant physicist who until this moment has successfully erased her past, fighting what she calls the mind's arrow of time.

When Su Lan dies unexpectedly seventeen years later, it is her daughter Liya who inherits the silences and contradictions of her life. Liya, who grew up in America, takes her mother's ashes to China—to her, an unknown country. In a territory inhabited by the ghosts of the living and the dead, Liya's memories are joined by those of two others: Zhu Wen, the woman last to know Su Lan before she left China, and Yongzong, the father Liya has never known. In this way a portrait of Su Lan emerges: an ambitious scientist, an ambivalent mother, and a woman whose relationship to her own past shapes and ultimately unmakes Liya's own sense of displacement.

A story of migrations literal and emotional, spanning time, space and class, Little Gods is a sharp yet expansive exploration of the aftermath of unfulfilled dreams, an immigrant story in negative that grapples with our tenuous connections to memory, history, and self.

The End

June 3–4, 1989

From above, the heart of the city is easy to see. Beijing is a bull's-eye. Concentric ring roads close in toward the old city walls, now paved into wide avenues. The avenues form a tight band around the heart: the south-facing gates, the moated palace, the desert square. On a map, diminishing circles draw in the eye, as if to say, Come.

Bodies have come. In the square, bodies sit, stand, and lie on the hot paved stone. The square was built for six hundred thousand bodies; for weeks, there have been more. Rats sniff between folds of newspaper; flies regurgitate on sunburned shins; roaches scuttle across sleeping toes. Women in white uniforms weave through carrying metal tanks, spraying disinfectant where concrete shows. From above, this movement looks like a primitive organism, breathing. In the nucleus a burst of color radiates and contracts, radiates and contracts, as bodies leave the square, return and leave again. West of the outer ring, a dark mass ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The epigraph of Little Gods features a quote from John Berger, author of Ways of Seeing: "The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. The past is not for living in...." Why do you think Jin selected this quote?
  2. The very first question we see Su Lan ask is, "Do you believe in time?" How does each generation of Su Lan's family view time?
  3. How does the concept of death work in Little Gods? Is Su Lan truly dead, in the eyes of the characters? What about Yongzong?
  4. This is a book told in negative: Su Lan is at the center of the story, but she never has a narrative voice. Do you think Liya discovers the "true" Su Lan in her search? How does each character's memory of Su Lan keep her or him from ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The panoply of narrators naturally means that certain sections are more successful than others; certain voices are more compelling, certain storylines feel more relevant. But when viewed as a whole, Little Gods is like a jigsaw that falls into place as soon as you close the final page. An intricate novel about grief, loss, memory and the self as it relates to one's culture, Little Gods is a smart, emotionally charged novel that at times is nearly as elusive as Su Lan's character, but well worth the effort...continued

Full Review Members Only (638 words).

(Reviewed by Rachel Hullett).

Media Reviews

New York Times
I did wish Jin’s narrative had been better signposted. The oscillating viewpoints (including an early focus on the hospital nurse, who turns out to be less important than this implies) can be disorienting, especially when accompanied by unexplained shifts in time and place...It is a testament to the story’s power that, despite the novel’s structural flaws, Liya’s duel with her mother nonetheless shines.

Washington Post
[A]mbitious, formally complex...there’s a haunting poetry to Jin’s final images, which present a vision of linear time collapsed into space-time and a traveler journeying toward reconciliation that once seemed impossible. “Little Gods” marks a bold first step for a novelist who promises to give us even finer work in the future.

NPR
[O]ne of the most complex character studies I've ever read...This is a smart and emotionally devastating novel. It is also a gritty narrative that reveals the inner universe of two women in detail, while still leaving us full of questions.

Kirkus Reviews
Not all the plot contrivances make sense, but Su Lan is a fascinating character of a type rarely seen in fiction, an ambitious woman whose intellect and drive allow her to envision changing the very nature of time...perhaps most compelling is the story of one woman's single-minded pursuit of her ambition.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Artfully composed and emotionally searing, Jin's debut about lost girls, bottomless ambition, and the myriad ways family members can hurt and betray one another is gripping from beginning to end. This is a beautiful, intensely moving debut.

Booklist (starred review)
Skillfully revealed, exquisitely rendered.

Author Blurb Colum McCann
Meng Jin is a writer whose sweep is as intimate as it is global. Little Gods is a novel about the heart-wracking ways in which we move through history and time. A fierce and intelligent debut from a writer with longitude and latitude embedded in her vision.

Author Blurb Claire Messud
Meng Jin's beautiful debut novel is ambitious in the best ways: meticulously observed, daringly imagined, rich in character and history. Ranging across continents, cultures and generations, Jin poses profound questions: how might we know ourselves, or the people we love? And what truths, if any, travel with us?

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Beyond the Book

The Tiananmen Square Massacre

Man standing in front of tank at Tiananmen Square demonstrationOne of the largest public squares in the world, Tiananmen Square lies in the heart of Beijing. It's named after a monumental gate built in the 1400s leading into the Forbidden City; Tiananmen means "Gate of Heavenly Place." Despite the serene undertones of the name, however, Tiananmen Square has long been a site of political unrest and violence.

The most notable event in its history is a series of student protests that culminated in a brutal massacre on June 4, 1989. Earlier that same year, in April, liberal Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang died, and the streets were flooded with mourners, mostly students. This mourning soon took the form of protest—students took to the streets in order to demand political and economic reform. ...

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