The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies

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The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Anna Hollingsworth
Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
Summary: The Fortunes documents the lesser known stories of Chinese migrants in America over more than a century. A perceptive take on identities and migration, the novel is not one to be left on the shelf.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: August 2016
Publisher: Sceptre
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0340980231

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Clashes of cultures or cultural enrichment? Xenophobia or embracing diversity?

Today's hot topics focus much on cultures meeting and notions of foreignness, especially in the context of migration. As such, Peter Ho Davies could not have chosen a more current and thought-provoking theme for The Fortunes: through four different stories, the novel documents some of the history of Chinese people in America over more than century. From railroad workers, laundry owners, and prostitutes to film stars and adoptive parents, The Fortunes tells tales of searching for identity on both national and personal levels.

The reader is first introduced to Ah Ling who finds himself in 1860s California. The son of a prostitute and white man, or 'ghost', he has been sold off to make his own way in America. Ah Ling soon rises through the ranks of society from laundry worker to personal assistant, yet he always remains foreign and outside white American circles. The deepest challenge, however, follows when Ling is forced to define his identity as Chinese railroad workers go on strike but his, and their, American boss is the man who enabled his social climbing. Cue Anna May Wong, a stunningly beautiful actress in the 1920s. Condemned by her Chinese father, she's adamant to make it in Hollywood – to the extent that a non-white actor can. Anna watches her dream roles go to white actors appearing in yellowface; yet when she visits China, she is condemned to be too American. Vincent Chin's wedding day turns into his funeral as he is killed by a pair of auto workers in 1980s Detroit for looking Japanese; his family and friends are left with their sorrow in headlines and also a fight for social and ethnic justice. Finally, John Ling Smith, a half Chinese, struggling writer finds himself visiting China for the first time in his life to adopt a baby girl. The times, destinies, and attitudes change, but a sense of otherness remains.

Davies succeeds in his exploration of the effects of immigration on society and personal identities with admirable dexterity. The Fortunes recognizes the complexity and sensitivity of issues at hand, and does not paint anything in black and white but uses mostly shades of grey. There is always the risk of accusing the host country of the misfortunes of the protagonists but Davies steers well clear of this: there is no moralizing or defending of the actions of the white American, first-generation immigrants, or those in-between – everyone falls onto the spectrum of grey.

Also stylistically, the novel is a true delight to read. Each story is written in a different style: Davies moves fluently from the more straightforward narration of Ah Ling’s struggles to snapshots of Anna May Wong's career, and from the stream of consciousness recounting Vincent Chin's tragedy to the more minimal yet equally personal account of John Ling Smith's adoption tale. As such, The Fortunes delivers four novels in one, all tied together yet refreshingly different; in this, it manages a rare feat.

This is not to say that The Fortunes is without stumbling blocks. Unfortunately to the whole, the stories are not equally strong; in particular, Ah Ling's tale sets the novel off to a weaker start than the other sections would, and as such does not do justice to what follows. There is a sense of repetition to this first story, and it is heavier to plough through than necessary; furthermore, the protagonist's actions and intentions do not come across as psychologically plausible. That said, even at its weakest, The Fortunes delivers solid, if not stellar, storytelling and will hardly make the reader put the book down.

Clever, topical, stylish – The Fortunes delivers on all fronts. A perceptive take on identities and migration, the novel is not one to be left on the shelf. You might also enjoy All Our Days by Dinaw Mengestu.

If this book appeals to you, then you might also like to try Brooklyn by Colm Toibin or The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.

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Buy The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies at


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