16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
This book deserves at least 6 stars!,
This review is from: Under Fishbone Clouds (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Program (What's this?)
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.
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Showing 1-10 of 17 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 14, 2010 3:35:42 AM PDT
Friederike Knabe says:
Jill, WOW! Gushing is right and it appears that the book deserves anything you can give it! Enchanting - the review and the novel. Thanks for introducing this new author to me. Friederike
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 14, 2010 5:47:00 AM PDT
Thanks, Friederike. I DO recommend this book to you. I closed the last pages with the confident feeling that Sam Meekings will soon be a household word among literary readers with a long, award-studded future ahead of him.
Posted on Oct 14, 2010 9:37:17 AM PDT
Jill--simply gorgeous review for a gorgeous, masterful book. I know what you mean--a debut? Impossible, it seems. You wove in the threads in the same dreamlike way as the book. SBug
Posted on Oct 14, 2010 10:57:12 AM PDT
Jill, this is a lovely review. My wife keeps pressing this book on me. I suppose I will have to read it now.
Posted on Oct 14, 2010 11:00:13 AM PDT
I don't know why my vote didn't go through. Oh, Amazon Amazon.
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 14, 2010 11:02:46 AM PDT
And Walrus? Your wife is a wise woman :) The book is incredible. You're going to love it!
Posted on Oct 14, 2010 9:22:49 PM PDT
Roger Brunyate says:
Jill, although I have seen a draft version of this review before, it makes it somehow more real to read it here, especially since you give the reasons for your appraisal so eloquently. This is something I shall certainly look out. Unfortunately, I have already made one impulse purchase this week (on a recommendation from Bug), and really can't keep buying books more quickly than I can read them! Roger.
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 15, 2010 7:11:46 AM PDT
Roger, this book is from Vine and will probably be available next Thursday. I am assuming that Vine pickings will be slight. Pls. let me know if you want the link. Truly, this is one of the best books I've received from my three years in the Vine program.
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 15, 2010 5:05:26 PM PDT
Bonnie Brody says:
Jill, Between your review and Bug's, this book will be one I order as soon as I get to Florida. It sounds so beautiful and intricate. Thanks for the wonderful review. I'm starting to want to read again after my lull. I don't know what caused it but for a few weeks I just did not feel like reading at all. Now, I'm finishing Tremain's wonderful book, Trespass, and am looking forward to reading Schlink's new book. Bonnie
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 15, 2010 5:10:44 PM PDT
Bonnie--sometimes we have to have a lull. Oh, I am going to be doing a Schink, also. The Gordian Knot. I think he sometimes does these sort of suspense/detective ones. I noticed that he was going to have 2 separate books coming out roughly at the same time. Weird for a literary author, usually. But I see Lippman is, too. This time one of her not-so-literary but I suppose fun-loving series. SBug