Meng Jin’s ambitious, formally complex debut opens in Beijing at the climax of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, as a woman gives birth in a hospital ward that will soon be filled with the wounded. The maternity nurse who tends to Su Lan and her new baby is skeptical of the idealistic pro-democracy protesters: “Little gods, she thinks. Desperate to turn their own growing bodies, their own aches and despairs, into material that might reset the axes of worlds.”  This desperation is also what drives Su Lan, we see in the three linked monologues that circle back to tell her story after her death 17½ years later.

The first narrator is Zhu Wen, an elderly neighbor who cared for Su Lan’s infant daughter, Liya, after Su Lan returned to Shanghai without her husband, apparently lost in the Tiananmen Square crackdown. The second is Yongzong, who along with a classmate named Zhang Bo competed for Su Lan’s affections when they were university students. The third is Liya, 2 years old when Su Lan embarked with her for America to complete a PhD (and leave an unhappy history behind); she abandons college in the wake of her mother’s death to return to China in search of her unknown father. Jin skillfully, if at times schematically, uses their varied voices and perspectives to elucidate what drove Su Lan and resolve the mystery of Liya’s father. She explores an intriguing array of themes: class distinctions in a supposedly classless society; language as a marker of identity and (paradoxically) a barrier to communication; the desire to eradicate the past, vividly embodied in the half-demolished building where Su Lan once lived in an ancient neighborhood being pulled down to make way for modern skyscrapers.

Jin sometimes flags her themes with undue insistence. “Do you believe in time?” new mother Su Lan improbably asks the maternity nurse. A few pages later, Zhu Wen tells Liya that her mother was a physicist and “her subject was time . . . Su Lan related to time as a prisoner.” It’s an odd insight to offer a recently bereaved teenager, and there are other moments in the novel when a character seems to speak more as the author’s mouthpiece than from credible personal motives. Nonetheless, “Little Gods” gains plausibility and texture as it progresses, slowly unpacking the emotional forces underpinning Su Lan’s intellectual quest to imagine the arrow of time running backward, so she could “remember the future and forget the past.”

Yongzong has a past he’d like to forget as well, an unhappy childhood as the relatively privileged son of a provincial city official who expected him to excel in school, attend Beijing University and join the Communist Party elite. Zhang Bo and Su Lan were from poor rural families, but both surpassed him on the all-important university entrance exam; they were tapped to study physics in Beijing, while his lower score relegated him to medical school in Shanghai. Yongzong’s tortuous courtship of Su Lan makes palpable her agonizingly conflicted feelings. She’s ashamed of her peasant roots and ashamed of her shame. Kind, unconflicted Bo, who knows and loves her true self, is “too good for me,” she tells Yongzong. “Maybe I’m the kind of woman who deserves to be with dirt like you.” An unlikely remark to a suitor, perhaps, but Su Lan’s self-contempt rings true.

We meet the woman she became in America in Liya’s recollections of an emotionally disengaged mother who uprooted them over and over, always seeking a new beginning. Discontinuous but complementary, the three monologues accumulate to paint a powerful, poignant portrait of a woman crippled by her fear of looking back. Zhu Wen’s and Yongzong’s memories also give evocative glimpses of how China has changed — and not changed — in the experiences of their respective generations. Liya’s voice is less compelling, muffled by some heavy plot lifting as she seeks the father whose identity has already been revealed to readers. It doesn’t help that Jin pulls back abruptly to a third-person narrative for the enigmatic, too-brief completion of Liya’s odyssey.

Sketchy and muddled though this section is, there’s a haunting poetry to Jin’s final images, which present a vision of linear time collapsed into space-time and a traveler journeying toward reconciliation that once seemed impossible. “Little Gods” marks a bold first step for a novelist who promises to give us even finer work in the future.

Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”


By Meng Jin

Custom House. 288 pp. $26.99