Monday, April 23, 2012

The Limits of Culture and Tradition: A Review of All The Flowers In Shanghai

Whenever I chance upon reading historical fiction, and the story is centered on a woman's plight, it gives me a sense of honor to read a special kind of bravery and steadfastness in the midst of oppression or chaos. This is because most of the historical fiction I read has a basis in the lives led by women during the most uncertain times, and that somehow, at some point, it is a reflection of the life led by all women of that era. It's not always a picture of gentle days and idyllic time, because even in the years past when women were revered, as there were also women in history who were abused, undermined, traded as a commodity, beaten, and treated in a most unjust and unfair manner just for being who they are.

The Story:

In this book, All The Flowers In Shanghai by Duncan Jepson, it is a moving display of bravery and will to keep one's head above tumultuous waters by a 17-year-old girl. She was swept off the quiet world she knew and unable to fight against the overwhelming tides of social culture and tradition. The story is set in Communist China, where Shanghai was in full bloom from the influx of Western an Eastern culture and the new economic times. Despite the introduction of Western influence, tradition still ruled the country with an iron fist.

Even in the life of little Feng, the second child of a middle-class family trying to make it big in society, tradition gripped her hard. What she only wanted was a quiet life spent in the family gardens, with her venerable Grandfather teaching her about the names of plants, trees and about the strange but interesting ways Nature worked. She didn't envy her Older Sister at all, despite how glamorous she looked, her face beaming with excitement everyday with the prospects of gifts from suitors, and to finally filter from them a suitable man from a noble family to marry into. But for Feng, getting married to a richer family meant being uprooted from where she comfortably was with her Grandfather, and that was the last thing she wanted for herself.

Her life suddenly took a turn for the worse as her Older Sister gradually succumbed to a sickness that she and her family did not expect. For her social-climbing mother, the wedding still had to push through, even if it meant her second daughter Feng had to take her place: what's important is saving face and keeping their family honor from ridicule.

This is how young Feng was abruptly cast off from one household and into another clan. A new set of family who never thought for her well-being except when she is thought of as a baby-maker for their Eldest son, the carrier of the noble Sang family name. The one positive thing in her new world was her husband, who was kind and sensible enough, but his family ruled over him and made him their puppet. Her life was all at once a jumble of confusing names and faces and rules and insults, and she had no one to talk to, her daily life now a series of dull moments and scared, lonesome thoughts.

The uprooting is tumultuous and through the years that passed it opened Feng's mind that it was a far crueler world she was thrown into, and it is at that point she realized she had to adapt to being equally as cruel to survive and get ahead of her enemies. Exposed to the harsh realities that a girl in their tightly-bound culture had to endure, Feng's hatred has spawned to curse even her own daughter, the firstborn that she had to give away. Since being forced to leave the safe confines of her family gardens and away from the protection of her Grandfather, her life that was once brimming with brightness began to dissipate into a narrow, dark, and bitter pathway.

My Impressions:

This book is almost poetry in prose because of the descriptions of the author about the characters, the houses and some special details that put a bit of color in an otherwise almost-linear story.

I've always loved to read about China. Their culture holds a special place in my heart no matter how weird it is. I've read novels like Spring Moon by Bette Bao Lord which is one of my good reads centered on this topic. I love reading about their traditions or whether it's about the daily lives of men and women or special stories about the Royal court; and it is because of this book that I feel the urge to read Dream of the Red Chamber, but I can't find a cheap copy of it, though. 

The novel is well-told at the start and I liked how it helped me pictured young Feng in my mind, a bright-eyed thing with a curious desire for the world. She grew up too fast for me, as though the transition and the fleshing-out was not enough. She grew old too fast, too. But at the very end... I could feel her desperation and pain. It was not an easy thing to read.

I liked this book well enough to recommend it to some friends. They've been pretty interested when they saw me reading it. Since I wasn't yet done then, I directed them to a local bookshop that carried this title, although mine had the tell-tale "Advanced Reading Copy" right at the front.

If anyone of my friends are reading this and want to borrow this book, leave me a message! I will be glad to let you~

Thanks for reading!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the HarperCollins Publishers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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