In February of 1957, Chairman Mao Zedong made what most political theorists considered an unthinkable move. In what was later termed the Hundred Flowers Campaign, he called for a relaxation of constraints upon Chinese intellectuals, inviting an open and ongoing critique of the Communist party. Inevitably, the policy backfired after the CCP buckled under the weight of heavy criticism, and thousands upon thousands of people were imprisoned and sent to penal colonies or executed for their “crime” of speaking out against the government.
Not to be confused with one of her earlier novels, THE STREET OF A THOUSAND BLOSSOMS, A HUNDRED FLOWERS finds author Gail Tsukiyama doing what she does best --- exploring the ebbs and flows of familial relationships in times of great and often political upheaval. Set in the summer of 1958 --- barely a year after Chairman Mao’s now famous declaration: “Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend” --- this quiet novel scratches the surface of what commoners all across the country endured during the regime’s ruthless crackdown on free thinking of any kind that continues to this day.
"A HUNDRED FLOWERS finds author Gail Tsukiyama doing what she does best --- exploring the ebbs and flows of familial relationships in times of great and often political upheaval."
The story begins in a small village in the Dongshan area of the Guangzhou province, as herbalist and healer Kai Ying tends to her family’s wounds. Her husband Sheng, a teacher and outspoken naysayer of the CCP, has been arrested and shuttled off to the far-flung city of Luoyang to be “reeducated” in a labor camp. Their seven-year-old son Tao has just fallen out of a kapok tree, crushing his leg and planting himself in the hospital for an indefinite stay until his body has a chance to heal. Sheng’s father, Wei, can’t seem to pull himself out of his depression since his wife died, and each member of the family --- including Kai Ying --- seems to be hiding a secret he or she isn’t ready to relinquish.
As the narrative jumps back and forth, alternatively focusing on different family members and revealing snippets of a shared history (though firmly rooted in the present), Tsukiymama presents a pieced-together world in which characters unmoored by often painful memories suffer through periods of intense longing. While this succeeds in creating a palpable mood of despair and yearning, it also drives a wedge between the reader and the events unfolding in the story. Who is Tao aside from a kid who fell out of a tree? Who is Kai Ying aside from the glue that keeps her family together in her husband’s absence? Is Sheng alive or dead? Who really wrote the letter that led to Sheng’s arrest? Unfortunately, it isn’t until the very end that we find out the answers to some of these questions --- a move that smacks of lost opportunity, at least as far as depth in story development is concerned.
In contrast, there are a few wormholes worthy of a mention. The appearance of two strangers --- pregnant 15-year-old Suyin on Kai Ying’s doorstep and guardian angel Tian on Wei’s two-day train slog to track down Sheng’s whereabouts --- does wonders to stir up plot momentum, and even though Auntie Song’s secret is given short shrift with regard to page real estate, readers will certainly root for her when the truth is eventually revealed. In fact, it might even be the stuff of another novel in the making.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on August 10, 2012