Driven by Hunger, Hardened by Hope

Under Fishbone Clouds by Sam Meekings

I love, love, love this book. Meekings tells the story of the relationship between Bian Yuying and Hou Jinyi over the course of their lifetime together. Yuying is the oldest daughter of an opium-addicted aristocrat just before the Communist takeover of China. Jinyi is an orphaned runaway who longs to be a part of “real” family. Though their marriage is arranged, they find themselves truly loving each other, and they prove this again and again to each other, through the death of children, the hardships of history, the separation of re-education and senility, and a thousand other gestures.

The Kitchen God narrates their story, ostensibly because he is trying to figure out the workings of the human heart, and the story of Jinyi and Yuying is close to his own. Meekings meshes the mythical and the historical adroitly. Naturally the narrator is an illegal god. Who else would have that kind of limited omniscient point of view? In doing so, Meekings is able to comment on many (seeming) paradoxes of Chinese culture, and to suggest that the past, even the ancient, rewritten past, is still very much a part of contemporary China.

Meekings also skillfully balances the particular and the universal. While the story of Yuying and Jinyi is very much set in China, the story itself echoes other timeless romances, such as Les Miserables, in which history is merely one more obstacle that devoted partners must overcome in order to prove their love. I do not mean to suggest that the historical events are irrelevant to the characters. On the contrary, the march of history provides much of the motivation for their actions. I just mean that their own personal history– such as the death of their sons– is as important. Furthermore, while there are universal themes, as I’ve said, this book is definitely set in a particular time and place, and the characters respond realistically and believably to their environments. Unlike in some other books-written-in-English-about-China (this really seems like it should be its own genre to me– is it? does it have a name?), however, this time and place feels very natural. Sometimes when I read Amy Tan, for example, (whose books I love), I feel like the book is screaming “LOOK AT US ALL BEING CHINESE! WE EAT CHINESE FOOD! WE HAVE COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIPS WITH OUR FAMILY MEMBERS! WE USE DIFFERENT WORDS!” (Please understand, this is not necessarily a fault. I am only describing what I see, not passing judgement.) In this book, Meekings shows these same important things, but doesn’t seem to make a big deal about it. Perhaps because he is dealing with only China, rather than the liminality of being Chinese-American, he doesn’t need to make such a big deal out of it. And believe me, I never for a minute forgot where or when the story is situated, and where and when I was in relation to it.

Ultimately, this story is about love, and about how whether it’s easy or hard, it’s all there is. Towards the end of the novel, the Kitchen God says

Yuying realized the same thing that I had long ago learnt in my bet with the Jade Emperor, that the heart survives on the tiniest details– driven by hunger, hardened by hope. Hearts are made, piece by piece, forged in the furnace of our feelings and fears and doubts and longings. Jinyi and Yuying had set their hearts against history, and they had won out. Without love, we would be lost among dream. Truth, history, socialism, revolution–all are illusions. Love is the only thing that sustains, that keeps people moving, that ties them to the earth.

When it’s easy, when it’s hard, love is all we have. This is an excellent novel. I hope you’ll find time to read it.

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