, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: Four Treasures of the Sky, by Jenny Tinghui Zhang
Flatiron, 2022. 336 pp. $28

The first, arresting sentence of this utterly compelling novel refers to a kidnapping, but the story’s much larger than a single person. It’s a tale of good versus evil, mostly the latter.

Despite being named for a tragic heroine of legend, Daiyu has a happy childhood in 1880s China. Growing up in a fishing village six days from the port of Zhifu, she has firm but doting parents who teach her to love nature and respect others, and to expect such respect in return. With that nurturance to guide Daiyu, life holds great promise:

Our village sat next to a river that fed the ocean and in those early years, I walked along the riverbank often, following the black-tailed gulls until I reached the ocean’s mouth. I hugged the water’s edge, counting the riches that it held: life, memory, even doom. My mother spoke of the sea with romance, my father with reverence, my grandmother with caution. I felt none of those things. Standing beneath the gulls and swifts and terns, I only felt myself, one who held nothing, carried nothing, and offered nothing. I was simply beginning.

Unbeknownst to Daiyu, these are dangerous times, and one day, her parents flee without warning, leaving her in her grandmother’s care. Soldiers come looking for the fugitives, which bewilders Daiyu; what could her parents have done wrong? And soon, it’s too dangerous for Daiyu to live in the village, whereupon she’s sent to fend for herself in Zhifu.

Perhaps that seems improbable, but what follows is all too nightmarishly real. For a while, she finds comfort and stimulation as a servant at a calligraphy school, and in learning that art, she learns about life. In that way, you might call Four Treasures of the Sky a coming-of-age novel, though it’s different in tone from any I can think of.

Her kidnapping interrupts her education and self-discovery, and much else. Kept for a year in captivity, where she’s taught English, she’s sent overseas to a brothel in San Francisco. The author may pull a punch once her protagonist arrives in America, but rest assured, Zhang doesn’t protect her characters. Daiyu also has further misadventures in Idaho, where she tries to pass as a man. Throughout, she experiences or observes the brutalities women suffer at the hands of men, or each other.

Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper ran this cartoon in April 1882, commenting on the Chinese Exclusion Act of that year (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

But dressing and acting as a man offers only a veneer of protection; as a Chinese person, she’s subject to constant harassment, insult, degradation, and violence. “No — and furthermore” thrives here in full force, so that whenever a hint of kindness, generosity, or warmth reveals itself, you have to wonder how long it’ll last.

To survive, Daiyu, now called by other, invented names, retreats within her tragic alter ego, or, to be precise, literally and figuratively swallows her and holds her inside. What a remarkable metaphor, an attempted antidote to the bitterness that life forces down her throat. But the alter ego also represents the self that Daiyu may never show anyone, for fear of exposure and punishment. As a result, she won’t let herself trust or love, so that dreadful as her physical sufferings are, the emotional deprivation is that much worse.

Zhang’s prose, as quoted above, penetrates surfaces to illuminate the shadows or currents beneath, one pleasure of Four Treasures of the Sky. Besides the passages on calligraphy, I enjoyed one describing the differences between Chinese and English; the latter, soft-pedaling unimportant words while emphasizing others with vigor, “is a matter of timing and chaos.” Another passage precisely links male power to physicality, reflected in how men move and carry themselves. Like so many parts of the novel, it’s beautifully observed without a hint of self-consciousness.

Mostly, though, Zhang wants to redeem the largely forgotten history of American bigotry and violence against Chinese. In that, she performs a great service, in general and particular. In her afterword, she says that Trump’s lies blaming China for COVID energized her, in part, to write her story.

I warn you, however, that if you read this brilliant, disturbing book, be prepared to see humans at their worst. All the white characters are racist, and few of the Chinese have much to recommend them, either. Yet Daiyu’s constant struggle over whether to live fully, and how, prevents Four Treasures of the Sky from becoming a polemic or a tract. To me, the social and political observations feel integral and crucial to the narrative.

This is an important book.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher through my work for Historical Novels Review, in which this post appeared in shorter, different form.