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Four Treasures of the Sky


Four Treasures of the Sky

FOUR TREASURES OF THE SKY, Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s debut novel, is a propulsive, luscious work of historical fiction and mythology, told in the unforgettable voice of Lin Daiyu, a young Chinese girl who assumes various identities to escape, survive and thrive.

For years, Daiyu’s parents and grandmother told her the story of a magical stone left behind by a goddess building her temple in the heavens and eventually brought to earth. Much later, a boy is born with a piece of magical jade in his mouth, a reincarnation of the stone. As a young man, he falls for his cousin, a sickly orphan named Lin Daiyu, but his family insists that he marry for wealth. When his family tricks him into marrying someone else, his cousin falls ill and dies choking on her own blood, lovesick and devastated. As a child, Daiyu hates that she was named after a tragedy, a woman too weak to live through her grief. But as she grows up, she will learn that her namesake was far more than a broken heart.

In 1882, Daiyu's parents are arrested when she is 12 years old. Fearing for her safety, her grandmother cuts off her hair, dresses her in boy’s clothes and sends her to Zhifu, a port city in China, where she can disappear as a boy. Zhifu is crowded with foreigners, men with blond and rust-colored hair who gaze a bit too carefully at the Chinese women they pass.

"The protagonists of all the books that I read going forward are at a disadvantage: I will be comparing them to Lin Daiyu and her indelible spirit for years to come."

Masquerading as Feng, Daiyu is lucky to earn a spot as the cleaner of a calligraphy school. It is here that she learns of the Four Treasures of the Study, along with Master Wang’s belief that in addition to painting the strokes correctly, “the artist was also responsible for maintaining a balance of self in order to create good calligraphy.” For the first time, Daiyu starts to understand that she, like the artists who attend the school, can craft and cultivate her own character to find unity between herself and the person she wants to be.

Daiyu’s happiness at the school is formative but short-lived, and after only a few months she is kidnapped and trafficked to San Francisco to work in the city’s best brothel. Now embodying yet another character, Peony, the desirable virgin, she meets Swallow, the brothel’s highest earner. Silent, solemn and sensual, Swallow often puts herself on the line to protect the other girls. But although she has found some semblance of agency and autonomy, she cannot see a life for herself outside the walls of the brothel. Daiyu, she says, is different, and so she helps the girl escape with the aid of 18-year-old Samuel, a biracial Chinese American who frequents the brothel to earn the respect of his male relatives.

If there is one thing Daiyu has learned in the brothel, it is that being a boy in America is easy, but being a man is essential. Under the guise of Jacob Li, Daiyu finds herself in Boise, Idaho, where Chinese workers have flooded the area to work on the railways. For too long, Daiyu has seen her life divided into the time Before her kidnapping and After. But now, free from the traffickers, madams and johns, she sees for the first time a third chapter of her life: the possibility of a return to China, a return to her family, and a return to the Daiyu she wants to become. However, a great wave of change is taking over America, one of anti-Asian sentiment and shocking violence, and Daiyu’s disguise as a male can only last for so long. With the ghost of the original Lin Daiyu acting as her conscience and divine guide, she must draw on each of the people she has been, and all of the harsh lessons that have been taught to her, in order to become whole, content and unified.

I cannot remember the last time I encountered a character with as memorable, haunting and poignant a voice as that of Lin Daiyu. Zhang, in forcing her protagonist to embody so many different names and lives, has achieved something remarkable: a layered, complex and inspiring portrait of the real girl at the heart of each identity. Daiyu lives a harrowing, devastating life through each of her identities and sees corners of the world that many readers can only imagine --- fishing villages in China, luxurious brothels, mountainous mining towns --- yet her voice remains a bright, profound constant. How she grapples with herself and her identities only makes her clearer in the mind of the reader, and Zhang writes with a graciousness and compassion that make this young heroine leap right off the page.

On top of a fantastic voice-driven narrative, Zhang has crafted a gorgeous work of historical fiction that captures a little-discussed portion of American history centered on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which mandated a 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration. With anti-Asian sentiment at a new high now, revisiting this period of our history feels necessary and crucial, not to mention educational. The mining town of Pierce, where Jacob (Daiyu) ends up in Part 3 of the book, is written vividly and meticulously. And though it is clear that Zhang has done her research, the descriptions are never overwritten. She lives and breathes her settings. The history, though precise and accurate, feels naturally written, as though she lived it herself and is merely recounting.

FOUR TREASURES OF THE SKY is a dazzling combination of history, unforgettable voice and Chinese mythology that promises much more to come from this bright and devastating new talent. The protagonists of all the books that I read going forward are at a disadvantage: I will be comparing them to Lin Daiyu and her indelible spirit for years to come. Perfect for readers of THE GIRL WITH THE LOUDING VOICE, THE BOHEMIANS and VERA, this novel will stay with you long after you finish reading it.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on April 8, 2022

Four Treasures of the Sky
by Jenny Tinghui Zhang

  • Publication Date: April 4, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Flatiron Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250811805
  • ISBN-13: 9781250811806