Our Missing Hearts, by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng’s magnificent, devasting novel, Our Missing Hearts, is the perfect book for our times, in the best possible way. It’s like Ng took all of my worries about the world and validated them without offering false hope (change is going to take work). This book is one I’m going to be pushing into readers’ hands for months (if not years) to come.

Bird Gardner lives in New England, sometime in the not-too-distant future. He once had a mother but now only lives with his dad, who constantly repeats rules meant to keep the shrunken family together: don’t talk about his poet mother to anyone, avoid trouble at all costs, and don’t question the PACT (Protect American Culture and Traditions Act). These rules are troubling, of course, but what’s even more troubling are PACT’s ripple effects throughout American society. Bird isn’t the only one trying to avoid trouble because the powers that be have figured out how to control all dissent. To keep people quiet, take away their children.

In her afterword, Ng points to historical precedents for governments taking children away from parents who are, somehow, a challenge to the majority’s status quo. Governments in the United States, Canada, Australia, and other places took indigenous children from their parents to “civilize” them. The Trump administration separated children from immigrant parents. It is a terrifyingly effective tactic. In Our Missing Hearts, Bird slowly learns why his friend, Sadie (who was taken from her activist parents), burns with fury at the adults around her who keep her from going home, why everyone seems so afraid to voice their thoughts, why so many books have been removed from the libraries and schools, and, above all, why his mother had to leave.

Our Missing Hearts is narrated by Bird except for a middle section in which Bird’s mother, Margaret, gets to tell her story. She takes us back to an economic collapse so awful that it eclipsed the Great Depression. The collapse—called the Crisis—was blamed on China, where Margaret’s parents emigrated from. People of Asian descent (Chinese or otherwise) were attacked or shunned by white Americans. (Ng references the racially motivated murder of Vincent Chin in the afterword.) Margaret tells us how she survived the Crisis and found Bird’s father. Their love story is beautifully told and had my heart aching long before Margaret gets to the part where she explains how one of her poems became a flashpoint in the anti-Asian/anti-PACT movement.

One thing that really jumped out at me about Our Missing Hearts was the use of art to protest PACT and the complacency of white Americans. Because the fear of losing one’s children is so strong, activists have gone underground instead of staging mass protests or more forceful responses to oppression, people will create guerilla works of art that can’t be traced to anyone but that remind anyone who sees them that children are being stolen. Margaret’s eponymous poem is often quoted. Librarians also get a shoutout as part of the resistance, which pleased me greatly.

This book was an incredible read. Ng plays the emotions like a virtuoso and I was close to tears more than once because of the beauty Ng invoked for the power of art, Margaret’s love for her family, and Bird’s awakening to the world around him. It also had my clenching my hands in fists at the way that PACT stole so many freedoms in the name of a little security against future economic and social turmoil. Ng does all of this without making anything too easy and without preaching. It works as fiction unlike a lot of books I’ve read that have sᴏᴍᴇᴛʜɪɴɢ ɪᴍᴘᴏʀᴛᴀɴᴛ ᴛᴏ sᴀʏ. This book is phenomenal.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Daughters of the New Year, by E.M. Tran

Xuan would be first in line to argue back with Cassius of Julius Caesar, who declared that “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings” (Act I, scene III). This survivor of the Vietnam War fervently believes in the Vietnamese zodiac and its authority over everything from the events of the lunar year to everyone’s personality. Every year at Tết, Xuan purchases a new alamanc so that she can find out what is in store for her family. As Daughters of the New Year, by E.M. Tran, opens, Xuan is hurriedly trying to send messages to her three daughters with urgent advice about how they can ward off bad luck for the coming year.

Daughters of the New Year moves backward in time from that frantic early 2015 Tết to show us what really shaped Xuan and her daughters. Where Xuan interprets everything through the lens of everyone’s zodiac signs (she is a Metal Tiger who should never have married a Metal Dragon, because they will always fight, for example), we instead see the long shadow of the Vietnam War in how Xuan hordes food and belongings and how she and her explosive husband relentlessly work to earn as much money as possible against future calamity. Their daughters—Trac, Nghi, and Trieu—however, are thoroughly American. They grew up in New Orleans and don’t understand why their parents don’t act like other parents in their community. They don’t get why their parents don’t buy them the cool new thing so that they can’t fit in. And because neither Xuan nor her husband will talk about their past, the three girls are left bewildered and frustrated. That much parental trauma pushed them all out of the nest, in directions that Xuan and her husband are baffled by in their turn.

After establishing the characters, Daughters of the New Year starts jumping further and further into the past. We see Trac and Nghi as young girls, then Xuan as a young mother and a younger bride, before sending us back to Vietnam. Before the war and right up until the end, Xuan and her single mother were a member of the privileged class. They might not have been rich but they were very comfortable. Xuan’s shining moment—and her moment of greatest disillusion—is when she competes in a beauty pageant to be Miss Saigon in 1973. Xuan’s mother, Quynh, is not a nurturing, motherly figure. Although she provides almost everything Xuan could want, she, too, is also constantly working to earn as much as possible. Briefer jumps take us further back into the family’s past and that of Vietnam.

The Chinese zodiac, the basis for the Vietnamese zodiac (Image via Wikicommons)

It’s hard not to read Daughters of the New Year without bringing out a Western psychoanalytic lens to examine the repeating trauma in the family. None of the characters, except for perhaps the Americanized trio of daughters, seems capable of reflecting on their feelings or behavior. They can recognize the bad things that happened to them—Hurricane Katrina, the fall of Saigon, a rape—but they all barrel ahead with their lives without ever stopping to realize that they are now harming others with their afloofness, lack of empathy, and rigidity. That said, I was fascinated by the use of the Vietnamese zodiac as Xuan’s way of understanding people and conflict around her. It’s funny how, sometimes, someone’s zodiac sign seems to fit their personality perfectly. (I don’t believe in astrology but I am a textbook Virgo a lot of the time.) On the one hand, Xuan is a product of extreme loss and deprivation. On the other, her metal nature is what makes her stubborn, and being a Tiger leads her to be independent, anxious, argumentative, and entrepreneurial. She sees herself as unchangeable and she’s not wrong (not without a lot of therapy). If someone can’t or won’t change, why not just learn the best way to work with a Metal Tiger?

Daughters of the New Year is a fascinating look at a dysfunctional family who are much more likely to claim that the fault is in their stars rather than themselves.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Outlawed, by Anna North

Although biology and societal convention push Ada into it, she is really not cut out for an outlaw’s life in Outlawed, Anna North’s thought-provoking alternate history of late-nineteenth-century America. A few decades before Ada was even born, devastating influenza ripped across the country (and presumably, the rest of the world). The world left behind seems obsessed with growing the population. Women are expected to immediately start gestating as soon as the ink is dry on their marriage certificates and keep going until they die or their body gives out. Women who can’t get pregnant are viewed askance and heaven help them if anything bad happens to anyone or anything in their village. Ada’s path to outlawry begins when she fails to get pregnant and is blamed for everything.

That first chapter or so of Outlawed is very uncomfortable to read, as North throws in just about every anti-feminist trope into the narrative. Women have limited roles: mother, wife, pre-wife, post-mother. Women like Ada and her mother, who are midwives, are tolerated but barely. Ada’s first port after fleeing accusations of witchcraft is a convent of barren women. The convent is relatively safe but Ada finds it just as confining as her village, even if she’s not expected to procreate.

Outlawed starts to get good—even funny—when Ada runs away again, to Hole in the Wall. Hole in the Wall is a remote camp run by the Kid and their gang of gender non-conformists. There are some misadventures that had me smirking at Ada’s terrible luck when she tries to break the law, although that rotten luck puts her on the gang’s bad side more than once. (Ada is a lot more successful when she keeps to doctoring.) When the Kid comes up with a scheme that could set them all up for life, Ada agrees to play a part in the hopes that she might finally be able to follow her dream of studying medicine and finding out the real reason why some women can’t get pregnant. The last third or so of Outlawed follows Ada from one disaster to another as she and the gang try to pull off the Kid’s plan.

While I enjoyed a lot of the plot, there were some things that bothered me about the book as a whole. Gender weighs heavily on this book and I appreciated the community reviewers on Goodreads who pointed out where North had her finger on the scale. For example, readers noted that all of the members of the gang seemed to be assigned female at birth, which means that transwomen are erased from this version of history. The only “safe” male character is a bisexual man who was castrated before he met Ada and the rest of the gang. The more I look back at the book, the more I wish North had had a lighter touch with her handling of gender and race (Ada has some issues with White Saviorhood) and let the characters be characters, instead of mouthpieces.

Ghost Eaters, by Clay McLeod Chapman

Grief is one of the hardest things we can go through. We have to find a way to make peace with the absence of someone from our lives. Throw in grief and things get even more complicated. Add in hallucinogenic mushrooms and the whole mess gets weird, as we see in Clay McLeod Chapman’s Ghost Eaters. Protagonist Erin winds up on a long strange trip after the sudden death of a friend who stirs up all kinds of complicated emotions.

Silas is the kind of person who raises the hackles on my neck. They are supremely persuasive, able to talk people into doing things against their own sense of self-preservation, and they appear to have no conscience, because they regularly convince people to do dangerous, damaging things. Erin has been under Silas’ spell for a long time. While hanging out with him is an adventure, it’s also emotionally draining. He asks his friends for more and more of their time, money, and resources until his self-destructiveness reaches a point where Erin, Amara, and Tobias—who have been friends since they were teenagers—finally decide to have an intervention about his drug use. It goes spectacularly wrong when Erin loses her cool and says everything she’s been holding in. The next thing, Erin et al. know, Silas is dead of an overdose.

The death breaks Erin. She is wracked with guilt over the things that she said to Silas. The emotional torment makes her susceptible to Silas’s last request, delivered by Tobias: a drug-fueled seance in an abandoned, unfinished house. And that’s where things get weird. The drug Tobias talks Erin and Amara into taking literally haunts Erin. She starts seeing ghosts. This would be horrifying enough for anyone, but Erin lives in Richmond, Virginia. There are a lot of angry dead there who want to devour the living.

Ghost Eaters oscillates between horror and emotional exploration of grief. The ghosts really are out to get Erin, and yet they also very much represent the unfinished business we have with the dead. Some of us want to make amends or say a proper goodbye or get justice. Some of us just can’t let go. The mushroom-based drug promises a connection with the dead to do those things; it’s no wonder that word of it spreads across Richmond to the point that a small cult starts to form. Unfortunately, that promise is a false one, a horrifically false one. This book stokes up a lot of tension as we watch Erin to see if she’ll be able to find a way through her grief instead of disappearing into it. Because there is so much emotional depth in Ghost Eaters, as well as sheer hair-raisingly scary writing, I think this one will stick with readers for a long time.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Two Nurses, Smoking, by David Means

In Two Nurses, Smoking, David Means presents us with a series of moments, captured by characters who are transfixed in time for a variety of reasons. Many of the characters are stuck in their grief. Others are trapped in unhappiness. Still others are caught up in lust or mental illness. Readers who read for plots will need to slow down while readers who are in it for characterization may relish these repeated opportunities to reflect along with the characters on moments of perfect recall, last sights, or imagined possibilities.

Some of the standouts from this collection include:

“Clementine, Carmelita, Dog”—Means immerses us in the perspective of a dog. Clementine’s primary knowledge of the world comes through her nose, not language. She smells when her owner develops cancer, but can’t understand why that owner suddenly disappears from Clementine’s world. And she also can’t understand why her next owner, a grieving man, turns her loose in the woods one day. Although she might not know why things happen, Clementine can understand love, family, and belonging. This story will be especially sweet for those of us who have pets.

“Lightning Speaks”—This story features a character, Meg, who appears in at least one other story in the collection. This non-linear story bounces around the disorganized mind of a girl/woman who seeks out love only to end up in an institution. She struggles to communicate with others who dismiss her, by taking the specialness out of her stories or talking over her. By the time her interlocutor realizes that he’s squelched Meg’s efforts to describe transcendence, the moment is lost.

Although I liked the meditativeness of Two Nurses, Smoking, overall this collection kept playing the same note. Many of the (mostly unnamed) narrators were impossible for me to differentiate; they all sounded alike. Means is excellent at capturing fleeting moments of clarity or memory, but I would’ve liked to have seen more variety among the stories. This book is best read over time and not in a single sitting.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, by Tsering Yangzom Lama

There are (at least) two different histories of the land we know as Tibet, depending on who you ask. The official People’s Republic of China version calls its actions a “liberation” or an “annexation” of Tibet. If you ask Tibetans, China invaded and occupied their country. In 1959, after an attempt to get the Chinese Army out of Tibet, the 14th Dalai Lama, his government, and thousands of Tibetans fled their mountains to India, Nepal, and other countries. Tsering Yangzom Lama’s novel, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, follows a family of refugees from their mountain village to Nepal and Canada, from 1960 to the early 2010s. Through the eyes of Lhamo, Tenkyi, Dolma, and others, we see the effects of exile, loss, disappointment, and misunderstanding. This book is a welter of emotion that, among other things, serves as a reminder that the Tibet many once called home may never be reclaimed.

We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies follows a roughly chronological structure, with some jumping around the generations. The book opens in 1960, with Lhamo. Lhamo is the daughter of a shaman. She and her father mind the house and keep people fed and clothed while Lhamo’s mother consults gods and spirits for any visitor who needs answers to their questions. Lhamo is the kind of dependable person who, from a Western perspective, might be seen as a doormat. She is always taking care of others, especially her younger sister, Tenkyi. We learn about her dreams and longings as we spend time with her. She wants better than a life of very hard work but always puts other ahead of herself. Tenkyi, who we meet later in the novel, travels further than her sister. Her intelligence is recognized early and the teacher in their Nepali refugee camp helps raise funds to send Tenkyi to college in Dehli. Dolma, Lhamo’s daughter, perhaps travels the furthest. She and Tenkyi manage to get visas to Canada, where Dolma goes to graduate school. Dolma’s distance isn’t just geographical. Unlike Tenkyi and Lhamo, Dolma never lived in Tibet. She was never fully immersed in the culture and beliefs. The closest she can come to knowing her heritage culture is to study it with Western anthropologists on another continent.

As we sojourn with the women through the decades and the miles, we watch them try to make a life for themselves out of their displacement. None of them can know what might have happened if Lhamo and Tenkyi’s parents hadn’t chosen to flee. (Their mother was under suspicion for her role as a religious leader and healer.) When those parents tragically die, the girls are even more adrift. It seems like Lhamo, Tenkyi, and Dolma constantly revisit the question of what might have been as they grow older. What might have happened if Lhamo had been able to find love? What might have happened if Tenkyi had been with the security of a family? And what might Dolma have been able to become if she’d grown up fully living her culture, instead of learning about it secondhand?

Under the heartbreaking plot and character studies, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies is the richest depiction of Tibetan life and culture that I’ve ever encountered in fiction. I was engrossed in the narrative but what really grabbed me were the details about Tibet’s shamanic traditions, the food Tibetans were able to create in their sparse homeland, and a way of life ruled by the tenets of Gelug Buddhism. I spent a lot of time bouncing around online and in Wikipedia looking at pictures of Tibet and its people, while trying to get up to speed on the political history. I wanted to see what I was reading about. The Wikipedia dive isn’t necessary to understand this book and, actually, I recommend saving the research for after you’ve read the book. Without prior knowledge of the historical context, readers of We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies—which I think is a reference to pilgrim’s prostrations—might be able to feel some of the bewilderment of an uprooted people, who have unreliable access to trustworthy information, living in long-term exile.

If you enjoy family sagas or books set in locations far away from any place you’ve ever been, I would definitely recommend We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Drigung Monastery, eastern Tibet, 2009 (Image by Antoine Teveneaux and hosted on Wikicommons)

We Carry Their Bones, by Erin Kimmerle

Trigger warning for extreme child abuse and murder.

Before it closed in 2011, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, was the subject of repeated state investigations for abuse and unexplained deaths of the boys who were sentenced there. The correctional institution was a place where boys were dumped. Many of the inmates had been sentenced for criminal offenses, but some (especially children of color) could be sentenced for “vagrancy”—a “crime” that forensic anthropologist and author Erin Kimmerle notes was often used to snatch people (again, especially people of color) from around the state to lease out for prison labor. All of those investigations found evidence of extreme abuse and yet the school was remained open for 111 years, after dozens of children had died and thousands more suffered irreparable psychological and physical harm. We Carry Their Bones is Kimmerle’s attempt to document the crimes that took place at the Dozier School and her role in uncovering dozens of unmarked graves on the School’s land when the University of South Florida finally got permission to conduct a forensic investigation in 2012.

We Carry Their Bones is the second book I’ve read that was based, at least in part, on events at the Dozier School. In 2020, I read Colson Whitehead’s gutting novel, The Nickel Boys. That novel is part of the reason I wanted to read We Carry Their Bones. I wanted to know more about the history behind Whitehead’s book. That history is very grim indeed. The Florida School for Boys—later renamed the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys—was founded in 1900 as a place for minor boys to be sentenced by the court system. The institution was segregated. When investigators recommended reforms (when they weren’t asking for the whole school to be shut down), the few reforms that were enacted were usually only implemented on the white side of the school. For example, one of the early investigations required that the school install fire escapes on the dormitories, they were only added to the white ones. Only years later were fire escapes added to all the dormitories. A fire destroyed one of the white dormitories in 1914. At least seven people died in that fire. It would have been worse if not for the two fire escapes–although Kimmerle points out that the doors to those fire escapes were locked and chained. Guards and children had to break the locks to get out.

Almost 100 years later, Kimmerle and her team from the University of South Florida found those seven bodies, co-minged in a confusing number of coffins, in unmarked graves on the school grounds. School and legal records (those that could be found) recorded 31 burials on the school grounds. Between 2011 and 2012, fifty-five graves had been found. The initial USF investigation used ground-penetrating radar and a technique called ground-truthing to find the graves in the graveyard. Ground-truthing is the removal of a shallow layer of soil to see if anomalies detected by the radar were burial sites. Kimmerle and her team didn’t have permission to dig deeper to confirm burials or exhume bodies. They, relatives of children who died at Dozier, and former inmates had to go to court repeatedly to get official permission to exhume bodies, identify those they could, and rebury them. Kimmerle frequently shares her memories of conversations with grieving family members and former inmates. Even decades later, the grief and fear and sorrow and anger are fresh. The former inmates, notably the White Hosue Boys (who took their name from the building on campus where the worst beatings were meted out), and family members never stopped asking questions about what happened at Dozier.

I appreciated several things about We Carry Their Bones: Kimmerle’s persistence in getting at least some justice for the children, the former inmates, and the relatives; her forensic expertise; and her efforts to put the crimes of the Dozier school into historical context. That said, I struggled to get through the brief book. We Carry Their Bones is disorganized and repetitive. Events aren’t arranged chronologically or thematically. Some events are told more than once, in similar language. A lot of the school’s history itself is glossed over. I can understand that people who worked at the school would be very unwilling to talk to Kimmerle, but it’s hard to conceive of how the Dozier School was open for so long, almost entirely unchanged in spite of the investigations, without more information. On that score, Kimmerle does touch upon why the residents of Marianna—who for decades staffed the school and were financially supported by it—would have such a hard time a) admitting the crimes that happened at the school and b) accepting that the school’s secrets must come to light. A lot of white Americans resist the fact that their ancestors did terrible things. A lot of the people who fight Kimmerle and other’s efforts were very much alive when those crimes occurred. If they knew, they were complicit. If they didn’t know, they knew people who were involved, either in the brutality itself or the efforts to cover it up.

In sum, although there are some very good parts of We Carry Their Bones and although this is an important story that must be told, I think this book could have used more time with the editors to cut the repetitive elements; suggest areas to add additional, relevant material; and re-organize the overall structure.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Mercury Pictures Presents, by Anthony Marra

I’ve come to expect great things of Anthony Marra, after being absolutely blown away by his debut A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and The Tsar of Love and Techno. Mercury Pictures Presents has some of the same elements as those other books—meticulously recreated historical setting, characters who are called on to sacrifice themselves to save others, epic plots—it has something I haven’t seen before. This book has an acid sense of humor. So many character descriptions and bits of dialogue had me chortling despite the dangers faced by the book’s cast of characters. I hope Marra starts to get more critical and bookish attention; he is a treasure.

Mercury Pictures Presents is all about facades: emotional, physical, and documentary. Every one of the major characters (and nearly all of the minor ones) presents a front to the world that hides their fears, sorrows, regrets, and anger. We, the readers, are among the few who get to see behind the facades to understand what’s really going on. The narrative takes us from pre-World War II Italy to wartime Los Angeles to the end of the war. The first protagonist we meet, Maria Lagana, is a young girl who hasn’t learned to be wary of the world. In an effort to protect her communist father, she attempts to burn drafts of legal documents he’s written to try and free people who’ve been caught on the wrong side of Mussolini‘s regime. She is caught before she can finish but her father pays the price. Once the authorities learn what’s in those papers, Giuseppe Lagana is sent into internal exile, from Rome to rural Calabria. This sharp, brutal lesson in the necessity of keeping secrets shapes Maria for the rest of her life, even after she emigrates to the United States with her mother.

Adult Maria gets a job at the struggling Mercury Pictures. Mercury used to be great but they’re fighting a losing battle against Hays Code censors and the major studios. They’re barely hanging on to B-grade status. Maria excels at marketing and sneaking things past the censor. That said, she wants more. She wants to be a producer. She wants to have a better relationship with her mother. She wants her Chinese American boyfriend to have better roles than the awful typecast characters that are the only thing on offer for actors of Asian descent. She wants to know if her father, who she hasn’t seen in over a decade, is alive or dead.

The rest of the cast in this book are all connected to Maria in some way and they are also all struggling between keeping up appearances and their own dreams. Her boss, Artie, is always trying to return Mercury to its glory days. We see his latest attempt: turning the studio into a propaganda machine to earn money from the War Department. Meanwhile, an old acquaintance from Italy has to hide under an assumed name and dodge restrictions on enemy aliens to try and become a great photographer. A hapless (and hilarious) detective in fascist Italy scrambles to protect people from his own government. Maria’s boyfriend Eddie Lu begins to loathe himself for sacrificing his integrity in order to get work. All of these plots and subplots are beautifully executed. Marra is a master of psychologically rich character development.

This summary doesn’t come close to accurately conveying the scope and depth of Mercury Pictures Presents. I hope something here sparks your interest because, as I mentioned above, I don’t think Marra is getting nearly the attention he deserves for his incredible, emotionally wrenching, and highly entertaining novels.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Many Daughters of Afong Moy, by Jamie Ford

Trigger warning for depictions of rape, racism, and abusive relationships.

The Bible tells us that the sins of the father shall be visited upon the son. But what about the mothers and daughters? Jamie Ford asks that very question in The Many Daughters of Afong Moy. Afong Moy is a real historical figure, believed to be the first Chinese woman to come to America. Newspapers in the 1830s wrote about her appearances as a traveling “exhibit,” in which she would sing and show her four-inch-long bound feet. From this inspiration, Ford imagines a series of female descendants who are haunted by trauma that compounds over the generations. Unfortunately, this interesting premise suffers from inadequate character development and a plot that races along too quickly to properly explore ideas and questions.

Afong Moy, at least in this book, seems like a person born to suffer. Instead of being able to marry the man she loves, she is given away in marriage to a man who has actually died. (Moy’s family can’t, for some reason, go back on the agreement with the other family.) Another of her dead fiance’s wives offers her an out: go to America. This rescue quickly turns sour as the people she was sent to end up exhibiting her as a curiosity. Things get even worse from here. Afong’s experiences—rape, exploitation, silencing—become the template for the lives of a series of descendants we meet in 1900s San Francisco, 1920s England, 1940s Myanmar, and Seattle in the 2010s and 2040s. In a sense, the racing plot might be a blessing in disguise because we are rarely given enough time with each of these women to bond with them.

An image of Moy from The Pittsburgh Gazette, 1836 (Image via Wikicommons)

We spend the most time with Dorothy, Afong’s descendant in a climate-ravaged Seattle of the mid-2040s. Dorothy’s homelife with her schmuck of a husband is just as tempestuous as the weather outside. The only bright spot is her daughter (we are told more than shown how precocious she is). Dorothy is afflicted with a depression that she can’t shake and can’t explain. After all other avenues have been explored—and with the pressure of possibly losing custody of her daughter—Dorothy tries an experimental treatment that claims to unlock past traumas. And by past traumas, the researcher means Dorothy’s and all her ancestors’ traumas. The ideas is that these traumas have been embedded in her DNA and the only way Dorothy can learn to deal with her inchoate feelings is to confront all of them.

The most interesting parts of The Many Daughters of Afong Moy come when Dorothy’s treatment begins to grant her access to her ancestors’ experiences. This mostly unexplained element of science fiction turns into a way for Dorothy to right some historic wrongs, if she can find enough courage in herself. It’s fun to watch. Unfortunately, at least for me, it was too little, too late. I felt like I was being whisked through a slide show of anti-Chinese racism and sexism over the centuries rather than engaging with realistic characters. If the plot had slowed down enough for more of the descendants to become more than waypoints, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more. That said, I wonder if a slower plot could’ve been supported by characters that didn’t have enough individuality to feel distinct from each other. Although there were interesting parts, I think The Many Daughters of Afong Moy just doesn’t live up to its premise.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Nuclear Family, by Joseph Han

It’s easy to mistake stability for coasting and it’s pretty clear from the beginning of Joseph Han’s Nuclear Family that the Cho family is coasting. The elder Chos plan to expand their small Korean delicatessen but that dream has stalled in the face of competition. Neither of the younger Chos really want to carry on the family business. They don’t know what they want, really; they just know they don’t want to do that. When Jacob inexplicably decides to take a job in South Korea and even more inexplicably tries to run across the demilitarized zone to the North, everything falls apart for the family. This book, then, is a slow burn of directionless decline in which we can only hope that the four Chos can somehow find their paths forward.

Most of Nuclear Family is narrated by daughter Grace and son Jacob. There are brief passages narrated by their parents and grandparents that add a little more context to the family’s struggles in Korea during and after the war and, later, in Hawai’i. Of the two, Jacob’s story is much more interesting (to me, at least). His disorienting fall has a clear cause. You see, he’s being haunted (and sometimes possessed) by his long-lost grandfather, whose unfinished business has turned his spirit into a gwisin. His sister, on the other hand, is possessed by marijuana. The drug seems to be the only thing that keeps her from completely losing her grip, at the cost of detaching her from reality. I find reading from the point of view of inebriated characters difficult. It often strikes me as so much blather. This might be because I ran with a nerdy crowd in high school and college; we were all too busy reading to experiment with mind-altering substances.

While Jacob struggles to ditch his supernatural pest of a grandfather and Grace barely pauses between puffs from her vape pen, their parents find that their community—especially their fellow Korean emigrants—has turned on them. Their son’s bizarre run marks the Chos as traitors. The main branch of their delicatessen is the target of a thrown brick. The snubs and gossip are even worse. I felt for the elder Chos. To see their dream of financial independence and a future for their children evaporate in the face of public disapproval is heartbreaking. What was all that work for if it can disappear in an instant?

The ending of Nuclear Family offers some hope for the future but, like so many other works of literary fiction, there is still the possibility that something else will happen to send the family off the rails. It might not be a happily ever after and I appreciate that. The conclusion of this novel feels honest and satisfyingly hard-won.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.