Cherished two-and-a-half-year-old Ursula Wong falls down an old mineshaft before her shocked parents, Justin and Annie. Justin drives for help while Annie sits stunned at the site of her daughter's disappearance. She cannot contemplate the reality of what must have happened to Ursula. Instead, she thinks of the generations concentrated into that one precious tiny being.
The reader is catapulted into riveting tales of Ursula's ancestors, beginning with the Chinese alchemist Qin Lao on her father's side in third century B.C. China. His life-long quest is to discover the secret of immortality, though there's a problem: he has a wife but no heir. He acquires a second wife and concubine, but to no avail. The birth of his son, when it finally occurs, is remarkable --- maybe magical.
Interspersed with stories of Ursula's forebears are chapters of the here and now, as Justin summons rescuers, the media gathers, and the young parents wait in agony. The reader experiences Justin's and Annie's memories of their own childhood and the time before and after their daughter's birth.
In the present, people all over the country watch Ursula's rescuers on television. They wonder if the girl is alive and how deep into the earth she has fallen.
In the past, Annie's ancestors live in eighth-century Finland and are about to meet. Curiously, both are deaf and mute. After they marry, they remain childless for years, possibly due to spells a spiteful witch has cast against them. Even after the witch burns to death, the two remain childless until they are past fifty, when they find themselves expecting. And what of the witch's curse? Could it affect their descendents, clear down to Ursula, lost in the mineshaft?
We return to Annie, who is bent on distracting herself from Ursula's plight. She is remembering a chain of events in her girlhood, which terminated in her being permanently disabled by a car hitting her.
Back and forth through time we travel. Each linked story is a perfect gem, with the feel of a fable. Each character is a fully realized individual and completely fascinating. We read of a true virgin birth, foundlings, concubines, fathers on the run, immigrants, witches, royalty, gypsies, foxes, lepers, and more --- while in the back of our minds, like a beating heartbeat, pulses the question: What has happened to Ursula?
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 24, 2011
- Publication Date: June 28, 2005
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 476 pages
- Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
- ISBN-10: 0143035452
- ISBN-13: 9780143035459