Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

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Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Mao’s Great Leap Forward provides the backdrop to a gripping tale of a daughter trying to find her true present and make a future, and a mother’s need to resolve the past.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: August 2011
Publisher: Bloomsbury
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1408822296

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It's the late 1950s, and America's teenagers (the very idea a brand new concept) are beginning to live the all-American dream. For some of them however it isn't all 'Happy Days' diners and rock'n'roll. For the second generation Chinese immigrants there's an alternative: back 'home' there's a brave new world being forged, a world where 'we'd work in the fields and sing songs. We'd do exercises in the park. We'd help clean the neighbourhood and share meals. We wouldn't be poor and we wouldn't be rich. We'd all be equal.'

Revolutions always look idealistic from a distance. Joy and her student boyfriend Joe (they've been together for a while, but never even kissed) have often talked about going back to China. When Joy discovers a major family secret and a very personal reason to go to the People's Republic she runs away to do just that. Calling Joe in the middle of the night she is in for the first of many harsh awakenings, It's one thing to talk about all that's happening in China but… I never planned on actually going there.

Joy cannot turn back at the first hurdle. Born in the year of the Tiger, she's true to her nature and has to take the leap – she's got to get that country of 600 million people and, somehow, find her father. So, a total innocent abroad, she finds herself in China, just at the start of the infamous 'Great Leap Forward'. Mao's disastrous development policy, as well as severely curtailing the movement of an entire population, most of whom had neither the inclination nor the means to move far beyond their local area, also obliterated a perfectly sustainable system of agriculture in favour of systems and targets that any peasant could see were doomed to disastrous failure. It's estimated that in the regions of 45 million people died in the resultant famine.

Joy knows nothing of this. She has only heard the propaganda. Her parents have tried to tell her otherwise. But then, her parents have lied to her, her whole life. Her mother is really her Aunt, her Aunt her mother, and her Dad upon whom she's brought such horror was no blood relative at all.

She leaves for her ancestral homeland with an optimistic spirit and a faith in Mao.

Shanghai is no longer the glorious place her mother and aunt regaled her with, but even its privations soon seem like luxury as she finds herself in the far flung village of Green Dragon, where families live in crowded huts, literally scratching their living from the soil… while the former landlord's grand villa is strangely under-used.

Pearl is the Aunt that has raised Joy as her daughter. She escaped with her sister in the 1930s as the Japanese were moving in and, much as she treasures her memories of the decadent years on the Bund in the Shanghai, she has a clearer picture of what China has now become. It is a life she cannot allow her daughter to condemn herself to. Blaming herself for the lies and the ensuing fight that drove Joy away, Pearl sets off after her, to bring her home.

The story is told alternately from Joy's and Pearl's perspective. It's a common enough device these days and one often deployed for no good reason. Here though it serves a very definite purpose. It allows See to show us this crucial period of China's history through the eyes of women from entirely different cultures. They may only be a generation apart, but Pearl remembers the China of old, the glamour, the parties, the opulence, the servants, and (yes, perhaps) the exploitation of the masses. In witnessing the changes she sees everything that is being lost, without the promised gains being made. Joy knows nothing of those times. She sees the hope and intention behind all the plans and targets. She sees a harshness of life, but one that is shared by all around her. She has the blindness of youth. Will anything be able to open her eyes? Or will the love of the young peasant artist simply make her even more blind?

Love is at the heart of Lisa See's latest novel. Mother-love. Pearl did not give birth to Joy, but she is her daughter all the same. The strength of that bond is one that cannot be broken. It is, after all, she, not May – the beautiful, spoiled, cherished, sister and birth-mother – who risks everything to fetch her back.

As with her previous books, she renders China in all its elusive beauty. The lyric qualities of Peony In Love' are not replicated here, but they would be entirely inappropriate. Whilst that work, which first brought me to Lisa See, was a true Romance, this one is much more rooted in reality. If anything, it can be seen as an anti-romance. It shows love, different kinds of love, but in essence the same, to be a solid, enduring thing, built of mundanity. The language reflects that: simple, to the point.

Even so the culture seeps through every page, the horoscopes, the calligraphy, artwork that evokes nature rather than trying to replicate it, the superstitions, the importance of family, of face. Then she brings all this up short, by giving a truly western reaction to the mediaeval nature of it. Having to deal with the night soil within hearing of everyone in the house, the bitter cold, the absence of sanitary towels, the fact that in this new egalitarian society women are no more equal than they ever were, still treated as the property of their husbands, the long hours of hand-worked farming, and ultimately the starvation-imperative that makes you stoop to pick up a single grain of rice.

Compassion, that cornerstone of all eastern religions, is lacking in this modern world. As barbaric as the foot-binding was, the Party solution to it is no more gentle or kind. Indeed, it contrives to be worse.

Privilege lurks around every corner.

And there are those who will make use of it, to save themselves or to help others.

For this is also a story of ordinary people just doing what it takes to get by. It's a story of hypocrisy and manipulation. It's about lasting friendships through long absences, finding friendship, and making friendship, in the unlikeliest places. It is about endurance.

But ultimately, it is also about that Great Leap Forward and the horror it wrought on the bodies and the minds of the people it was supposed to help. This is history as fiction: gripping, emotional, but utterly believable.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: Lisa See’s first novel Peony in Love takes a very female look at a much earlier period in Chinese history, or for a modern Westerner’s response to China, you could do a lot worse than Fuchsia Dunlop’s experience in Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper (which shows that some things have changed a little since the 1950s/60s)

Buy Dreams of Joy by Lisa See at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Dreams of Joy by Lisa See at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Dreams of Joy by Lisa See at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Dreams of Joy by Lisa See at Amazon.com.


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