Firstly, a huge thank you to Pushkin Press and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.
Publisher: Custom House
Publication Date: 14/01/2020
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
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.GoodReads
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.
Jin wonderfully crafts a whole host of deep and complex characters, and does so through brief snapshots from the characters perspectives and through the opinions of other characters. Little Gods masterfully demonstrates the art of showing and not telling. I loved being able to piece aspects of the characters’ histories together and figuring out how the characters’ lives intertwine. Additionally, by telling the story in this way, we get a much deeper and comprehensive understanding of some of the characters, Su Lan in particular.
Whilst there are several narrators of this novel, they each focus on the story of Su Lan. I found all of the characters really interesting and it was fascinating to read about their struggles. I was also fascinated to see the different opinions and perspectives different people can have on the same person. For one man Su Lan was the woman of his dreams and someone he always admired and yet her own daughter demonstrated bitterness rather than compassion towards her. Whilst this novel was a wonderful character study that delved into as many aspects that make up a person, this also explored the realities and expectations that came from growing up in China.
Although the novel begins on 4th June 1989, the day of the Tiananmen Square protests (also referred to as the Tiananmen Square Massacre), Jin weaves politics and society through the lives of each character where, for the most part, it highs in the background rather than becomes the main focus. I thought this was very effective as when attention was drawn to the shots of the protestor or something similar, you really took notice of it, even if not all of the characters do. We also learn a lot about the culture at the time merely through the characters actions -the way Su Lan presented herself at work as a physicist, or Yongzong’s relationship with his father.
Each character had a very unique voice and stay, yet they all complemented each other nicely. I especially liked how fluid the changing perspective, and even time was, yet still easy to follow with the signposts that the perspective had changed. Whilst they were all valuable to the story and a delight to read, I particularly enjoyed the parts that were told by Su Lan’s neighbour in Shanghai, Zhu Wen. I feel like it was through her perspective we saw were true aspects of Su Lan. Not only that, but it was refreshing how Zhu Wen would address the reader in the second person as if the reader is Su Lan’s daughter, Liya.
Overall, I adored this novel, everything just fit together perfectly. Whilst Jin is clearly talented when it comes to bringing life to the characters, making them all feel like genuine people with real lives, the frequent questioning the concept of time and revisiting memories made the novel have a dream time quality at times which was a delight to read and left me sitting in contemplative silence for a few minutes after I had reached the end.