Asked by the Jade Emperor to study humans and what keeps them alive even when war and political unrest cause great unhappiness, the Kitchen God picks a newly married couple, Bian Yuying and her husband, Hou Jinyi. Their marriage takes place in the 1940s, just before China became a Communist country. Although Yuying's family is rich, all that changes when Communism comes in, and the couple are forced to move to the countryside to earn a living, where they lose two babies. Eventually finding their way back to the city, they start up new lives and have more children, but the Cultural Revolution rears its ugly head, tearing their lives apart once more. How do they find the strength to continue living when being beaten and criticised for their bourgeois past and forced to work in different parts of the country?
I am always suspicious of authors that set their books in countries of which they are not native. I lived for many years in China, but still don't think I have the ability to write as if I am Chinese, and according to the back of the book, author Sam Meekings has only lived in China for four years. So it was with some trepidation that I began this book. I needn't have worried. I was instantly transported back to China. The descriptions are rich and well-written and felt completely authentic. Meekings has most certainly done his research; he weaves traditional tales in with descriptions of modern China and it works together brilliantly. For anyone who knows very little about China and is prepared to learn, this book is a really good start.
I have to be honest and say that, at the beginning of the book, I didn't like the whole Kitchen God and Jade Emperor storyline. Although it only takes up a very small part of the book - one or two pages preceding each chapter - I didn't feel that it was necessary. And to a certain extent, it isn't. The Bian Yuying and Hou Jinyi story is strong enough to not need embellishments, although I can understand the author's desire to make the book different from all the others looking at life during this period of Chinese history. As I worked through the book, however, I changed my mind. As a literary device, it is useful, because it enables the reader to take a step back with the Kitchen God and view the couple's life in the context of history, before returning to the much more personal angle of their family life.
Perhaps because of this distance, we never completely get under the skins of the two main characters. I think also that there is so much going on in their lives that the story is more concerned with their role in the whole picture of China. Nevertheless, there is enough information to intrigue and keep the reader interested. Bian Yuying comes from a wealthy family and has never really had to struggle. Hou Jinyi comes from poor peasant stock, and only manages to marry Yuying because her father wants someone to take on her family name, rather than losing his daughter to another family. [As an aside, despite the tumultuous times in which the marriage takes place, I'm not sure how likely this is, but the author is entitled to some artistic licence!] Despite their differences in upbringing, they do come to love one another, and it is lovely to read the growth in their relationship over time - Meekings has done a great job of balancing romance with realism here.
I really liked the way the story was told. There are thirteen chapters; each chapter represents the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac and the corresponding year (so 1946, for example, is the year of the dog). The thirteenth chapter represents the cat, which isn't a sign of the zodiac, but according to tradition, the cat almost became immortalised in this way, but lost out at the last minute. The story takes place across fifty-eight years, the earliest being 1942; the last being 2000. This is a great source of intrigue for the reader, because, having skipped a few years in between chapters, we are instantly eager to find out where Yuying and Jingyi are and how they are progressing.
The years that cover the Cultural Revolution made for uncomfortable reading; anyone that knows anything about the period will expect this, but it is still deeply unpleasant. Friends and even family turn on each other; no-one can be themselves and those considered bourgeois in any way are beaten and bullied. As a way of expressing just how frightening those years were though, Meekings descriptions are spot on. I particularly liked the fact that Yuying and Jinyi's son suffered from depression and/or social phobia, and really struggled with his inability to socialise during the most social period of China's history - I have often wondered how individuals with such problems survived the Cultural Revolution, and this is a great insight, albeit fictional and downright depressing.
I really enjoyed reading this book (if enjoyed is the right word for a story that is heart-rending at times). This is Sam Meekings' debut novel; I think it deserves to do very well and I hope that he continues to write about China. Apart from some initial reservations, the story is brilliantly told and the standard of writing is superb. It was a real pleasure to read a book that hadn't obviously been translated from the Chinese - the language does flow so much better. The contrast between traditional and modern China is also well done, giving a great insight into a period of enormous change. Highly recommended.
The paperback book is available from Amazon for £11.49 (it is a large paperback). Published by Polygon, it has 416 pages. ISBN-10: 1846971020
This review was first published on thebookbag.co.uk and was written by me.