Book Quote:

“This is the kind of story the Jade Emperor himself enjoys hearing from me, one where the focus, indeed the whole point of the tale, is the grand heroic choice, the cinematic action. He is always telling me to hurry up, to cut out the needless detail, to do some editing and present him with the stripped-down version. But life is not like that. The fight to ensure the survival of love is more likely to find its toughest battles amid small snarls about changing nappies or midnight feedings or plain old boredom; it is more likely to focus on little betrayals or hurtful slips of the tongue, to feature the day-to-day heroism of pretending not to be aware of a thousand little annoying habits. In short, love is hard work, and the fairytale ending of our story is only the beginning of the hard work of keeping love alive.”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman  (DEC 7, 2010)

If this book doesn’t attain the high readership it deserves, there is no justice. It’s quite simply one of the most lavishly imagined, masterfully researched, exquisitely written contemporary novels I’ve read. And if that sounds as if I’m gushing…well, it’s probably because I am.

Under Fishbone Clouds is written by debut author Sam Meekings, who grew up near the south coast of England and currently resides in China. It is absolutely remarkable that the author is under 30; the book is full of gravitas and maturity that is normally the result of decades of living and writing. Interwoven seamlessly within this mesmerizing narrative is Chinese folklore and myths – absorbingly told – in addition to insights into Chinese distant and recent past history.

This novel is narrated by the Kitchen God, a common household deity who is challenged by the more powerful Jade Emperor to fathom the inner workings of the human heart. He chooses to follow a couple who, like him and his own mythical wife, were caught in the whirlwind of history: Jinyi and his wife Yuying. The tale begins in 1942 when the two fall in love, in spite of their different backgrounds and their arranged marriage, and continues to their doddering old age as the new millennium takes hold.

At the onset, Yuying follows her husband across war-torn China to her husband’s rustic and impoverished home. Bad times ensue, and when they eventually make their way back to the city, the Cultural Revolution has begun; everything now belongs to the state and all social strata are forced to undergo hard labor in the factories and the fields.

Although the Mao Cultural Revolution years have been well documented, Under Fishbone Clouds takes you up close and personal to these dehumanizing times; it is a rare reader who will not wince at the no-holds-barred look at a country whose rigid ideology trumps personal relationships and freedoms. Business owners, entrepreneurs, artists, teachers, intellectuals – all are labeled “bourgeois” and re-educated in the harshest possible ways. In a particularly harrowing scene, a man has a heart attack and is ordered to “crawl” to comfort and stop being a slacker. The depths to which Jinyi and Yuying are forced to descend to – separately, without each other’s comfort – is heartbreaking.

Yuying reflects, “Life isn’t meant for perfect things. I knew it when we were told to put making steel above common sense; I knew it when we were told to starve patriotically because the noble peasants had been huddling around homemade furnaces instead of growing food in the fields; I knew it when the whole country began to rise up to cut down the past. I felt in the pit of my stomach all the time; I just never knew what it was until now.”

Yet despite the intensity of the Cultural Revolution years, Under Fishbone Clouds is not a book about tragedy; at its heart (and a big heart it is), it’s a family saga about the universal and enduring power of love. There is sheer magic and lyricism in the love that Jinyi and Yuying share as they navigate answers that are often impenetrable.

And, Meekings suggests, by love we are transfigured. Jinyi realizes toward the end of his life: “Love also changes shape. It is no longer slim, lithe, nervous and sweaty palmed. It was no longer sleepless, heavy, a stone weighing deep within the chest. It was now warm, slow, soft, a tarry old blanket huddled under in the dark. It was the last embers of a promise made decades before, still glowing red though the flames had petered down.”

Using Jinyi as a catalyst, the Kitchen God comes to the realization that people don’t just carry on with their lives because they must; the secret of life is love, atonement, and retribution. He puzzles out the human heart as he follows this couple through all kinds of trials: deep anguish, death of children, famine and forced labor, class warfare, drastic social and culture changes, isolation and homelessness, the loss of dignity and health.

Under Fishbone Clouds is one of those rare books that I would confidently recommend to anybody: those with an interest in the history of the East, those who are enthralled with mythology and folklore, those who hold out for the best of prose, and those who are simply seeking an old-fashioned story where love prevails. I predict an amazing future for this very talented author.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 23 readers
PUBLISHER: Thomas Dunne Books; First Edition edition (December 7, 2010)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Living Scotsman interview with Sam Meekings
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More novels based on Mao Cultural Revolution:

A Dictionary of Maqiao by Han Shaogong

Becoming Madam Mao by Anchee Min

And a current novel that it can be compared to:

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell


December 7, 2010 · Judi Clark · One Comment
Tags: , , , , , , ,  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, China, Facing History, Family Matters, World Lit

One Response

  1. Judi Clark - December 23, 2010

    I’m reading UNDER FISHBONE CLOUDS now. I really like how it puts Chinese history into perspective… sometimes you need an outsider to do this with any degree of clarity/perspective and this author does the job well. That he is also a poet means that not only does he tell the story of the last 100 years… but he does with such grace, that I think the Kitchen God is smiling. Thanks, Jill for recommending it!

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