A Hundred Flowers: A Novel

  • Gail Tsukiyama
  • St. Martin's Press
  • 288 pp.
  • September 14, 2012

Set during China’s forced removals to reeducation camps, this novel illuminates one family’s struggle to adjust when a young father is swept away.

Gail Tsukiyama will be appearing at the National Book Festival, which will be held on the National Mall on Saturday, September 22 and Sunday, September 23.

Reviewed by Kara Oakleaf

In 1956 Mao Zedong proclaimed: “Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend.” It was a call for citizens to speak openly about the Communist regime and offer suggestions for improving the country. During the ensuing Hundred Flowers Campaign, nearly half a million citizens who spoke out against the government were arrested and taken from their families for reeducation. Many were never heard from again. Taking its title from that period in China’s history, Gail Tsukiyama’s seventh novel, A Hundred Flowers, tells the story of one family’s struggle to survive when one of their own is taken from them.

The novel begins in July of 1958, a year after Lee Sheng, a teacher and young father, has been arrested and taken over a thousand miles from his family to a reeducation camp for writing a letter criticizing the government. Left behind in the Lee family’s crumbling villa in Guangzhou are Kai Ying, Sheng’s wife, who keeps her family afloat by working as an herbalist, treating her neighbors’ ailments; Wei, his father, a retired art history professor; Sheng’s 7-year-old son, Tao; and Auntie Song, a family friend living with the Lees.

In the opening chapter, Tao climbs the kapok tree in the family’s courtyard, hoping to see the peaks of a distant mountain he’d planned to visit with his father before Sheng’s arrest. Before reaching the top, Tao falls and breaks his leg. Kai Ying, Wei and Auntie Song are devastated by Tao’s injury and worried about his recovery. Though the family has not received a letter from Sheng in months, Kai Ying writes to him about Tao’s fall. When still no reply comes, the family finds it hard to suppress the fear that the worst has happened to him.

The story unfolds over the five months that follow and is told from the five different perspectives of Sheng’s four family members plus one other character, Suyin. At first a stranger to the Lee family, Suyin is a runaway, 15 and pregnant, living on the streets — in her family, she is the one who is missing.

Kai Ying, clearly suffering in her husband’s absence, finds incredible strength when it comes to protecting and providing for her son. She loves Sheng while feeling anger with him for putting their family at risk by writing the letter: “All of May and June of last year, Kai Ying saw the growing tide as the voices around her rose and anger roiled on both sides. She couldn’t help but worry, knowing that Sheng might be one of those voices.” Wei wrestles with guilt over the fact that he was not the best husband or father when his wife was alive and Sheng was still with him; to the rest of his family, he seems like a shadow of his former self. Even Tao notices that Wei and his mother “were sad, but his grandfather’s sadness was different, heavier, like a weight pulling him down.” Yet Wei is an excellent grandfather to Tao, making up for lost time with his own son.

The prose in A Hundred Flowers is spare and simple but graceful throughout. Shifting between so many different perspectives within the book might have been jarring, but Tsukiyama keeps the novel’s tone and language consistent as she moves between characters. The changes in perspective are not about voice as much as they are a chance to explore each character’s history, the secrets they are keeping from the rest of the family and their inner responses to Sheng’s absence. “Every little sound suddenly seemed magnified, the soft bubbling of the soup boiling, the clock ticking, the pumping of his thin, warm blood from his heart to his brain. And for just a moment, Wei wondered if it were possible to drown from the inside out.”

A possible flaw in the writing is Tsukiyama’s tendency to tell her reader explicitly what each character is thinking or feeling, which is unnecessary because her descriptions of the characters’ actions and other details already do an excellent job of conveying the  emotional states.

Because A Hundred Flowers is so much about the family’s day-to-day life, the story moves slowly at times. But the pace picks up about halfway through the novel, as more secrets are revealed and Kai Ying and Wei become increasingly determined to find out whether Sheng is alive. At the same time, this is not a story meant to move quickly. Its strength is in its characters, and Tsukiyama gives them depth as well as history, putting their lives in context.

Despite everything the Lee family has been through, A Hundred Flowers is ultimately a hopeful book. The harsh conditions of China in 1958 are always present. We see them in Suyin’s time on the street, in Kai Ying’s worries about food shortages and in Wei’s hiding away the books he knows the government would disapprove of. But the real story is in the Lee family household, in the large absence left by a family member who might never return.

Like some of Tsukiyama’s previous novels, including The Samurai’s Garden and The Street of a Thousand Blooms, A Hundred Flowers succeeds in illuminating a particular moment in history through the story of one ordinary family struggling through it and finding a way to survive together.

Kara Oakleaf received her M.F.A. in fiction from George Mason University. She works at George Mason University, managing the annual Fall for the Book literary festival.

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