Saturday, February 25, 2012
All The Flowers in Shanghai by D. Jepson
Duncan Jepson brings us a haunting novel, All the Flowers in Shanghai about a young girl, Feng, in pre-Revolution China. Told solely in the first person, we learn immediately that Feng is writing to a daughter that she had claimed was stillborn but was apparently still alive and was now telling her the story of her life.
Feng was the second daughter. The "spare" to her parents, who are only called Ma and Ba. She has an older sister, only called Sister, who is being groomed to marry a man of a higher status and has been treated like a princess her entire life. Xaio Feng dresses like a peasant and spends her time roaming the gardens with her grandfather and knowing nothing of life aside from the Latin names of flowers.
As her sister is preparing to marry the rich Sang heir, Feng meets a village boy and falls immediately in like with him. They spend a lot of time together, but when Sister is suddenly unable to marry, it is up to Feng to fulfill the contract made with the Sang family.
But Feng was never groomed for any of it - she knew nothing of the ancient traditions and ceremonies involved in a wedding or marriage. She insults her new in-laws immediately, but doesn't seem to care because they took her away from the life she had known and enjoyed. And when her new husband clumsily forces himself on her, Feng turns bitter and angry.
Her mother-in-law's insistence for a male heir angers Feng, so when she does become pregnant she manages to detach herself from her developing baby and makes her maid swear to give the child away if it is a girl. Of course, the entire novel is a story she has written for a child she never knew, so when a girl is born, the reader is not surprised. Her maid takes the baby and gives it away to an older couple and Feng tells the family she had birthed a stillborn son.
The story continues from there - covering more than 30 years time in all and goes into the beginning of communist China where Feng makes some drastic and unforeseen changes in her life.
In the end, I did not feel connected to any of the characters in this book, except maybe the given-away daughter since the letter was to her. Feng goes from a sweet, unassuming innocent to a cold-hearted, angry and bitter woman. Feng's family simply abandons her without and any life lessons (though I'm assuming that's just how things were in depression-era China). Her husband I can only assume is a fool and simply does what he is told by his father, mother and then wife.
I also felt like Feng spent much of the book searching for a true parent figure. Her mother treated her cruelly, using her children only as pawns to move up in station. For many years Feng looked to her older maid as a mother figure, then sought out another mother-figure after that. It seems that Jepson gave Feng many women who could fill the role, but none who could fill the pain Feng felt.
Overall, I give All the Flowers in Shanghai 3.5 out of 5 stars. It was fairly easy to read, but some of the material was tough and at times the language more crass than I'm used to, but it certainly fit with the storyline.