More than 50 years ago, in one of his most stunning acts of duplicity, Chairman Mao encouraged artists and intellectuals to offer ideas for the improvement of China. “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” Mao announced. “Let a hundred schools of thought contend.” That promising invitation was a thinly veiled ruse to weed out dissidents and “in the end, the Hundred Flowers Campaign had failed miserably. . . . All the counterrevolutionaries [were] arrested.”
Gail Tsukiyama’s gripping new novel, “A Hundred Flowers,” centers on a family in Guangzhou — the Lees — whose lives are torn apart by Mao’s deception. Sheng is a history teacher at the Guangzhou high school and father of young Tao. Sheng’s wife, Kai Ying, is extolled for her healing as a skilled herbalist. Auntie Song, a family friend, lives with them in a villa “in the Dongshan area . . . designed in the European style with high ceilings and columned balconies.” After the Communists came into power in 1949 and divided up the villas, “the grand villa was only a tired shell of what it once was.”
The story begins in 1957, one year after Sheng’s arrest for having written a letter critical of the Communist Party. Kai Ying attempts to keep things calm in the house by telling Tao that his father is away at work. Now 7 and a brilliant student, the boy, missing his father, climbs the huge kapok tree in the family courtyard in an attempt to see White Cloud Mountain, a peak his father often held him up to view. “He had little time to climb the kapok tree before he’d be discovered. He glanced down at the gnarled roots of the tree and felt strangely comforted, a reminder of the crooked ginger roots his ma ma sliced and boiled into strong teas for her headaches, or when his ba ba complained of indigestion.”
When Tao slips and falls 30 feet to the ground, badly fracturing his leg, the equilibrium of the household is shattered, too. “Kai Ying would never forget the sight of her pale little boy lying on the courtyard pavement, his leg twisted beneath him. A broken branch, she thought, a crushed leaf. He wasn’t moving. At that moment, she realized he might never move again and a feeling of terror overwhelmed her, stopping her abruptly and rooting her in place.”
During Tao’s long convalescence, a pregnant young girl, Suyin, stumbles into their villa. Starving and homeless, Suyin gives birth, and she and her baby girl become part of this already besieged household. Kai Ying, along with Auntie Song, takes care of the baby and helps Suyin recuperate with “bowls of black chicken and fish stomach soup . . . sweetened with dates and wolfberries to help build up her strength.”
When Tao finally returns to school, he’s bullied by classmates who make fun of his limp. One boy tells him that his father “was sent away because he’s a traitor and not a true comrade of the Party.” Later, Tao confronts his mother. “ ‘Tell me. . . .’ He choked down another sob. ‘Tell me why the police came and took ba ba away.’ ”
With secrets, guilt and regret swirling through this story, “One Hundred Flowers” might have been a book about betrayals — from those of Mao to those within the family. But Tsukiyama’s ability to transform a dark and complex story into a work about human dignity and love is magical. Her writing flows with the grace of calligraphy, revealing the thoughts, motivations and emotions of her characters with just the right strokes. Both poetic and powerful, each sentence seems to illuminate the hearts and souls of these unforgettable characters.
Zukerman is a flutist, the author of four books and the creator of the Verbier Vlog and the Tanglewood Vlog on MusicalAmerica.com.
Gail Tsukiyama will be at the National Book Festival on the Mall on Saturday.
A HUNDRED FLOWERS
By Gail Tsukiyama
St. Martin’s. 288 pp. $24.99