” What haven’t disappeared are rats. They’re everywhere. So here’s what I don’t understand: Old Shanghai, my Shanghai, had plenty of sin on the surface but was shored up by the respectability of banking and mercantile wealth underneath. Now I see the so-called respectability of communism on the surface and decay underneath. ” (Pearl: Dusts and Memories, p.106)
Dreams of Joy is a sequel to Shanghai Girls, after Joy comes to know about the truth about her parenthood. The book is set during a more recent and forbidding era, that of Mao’s ambitious Great Leap Forward, which began in 1958 and mandated the collectivization of Chinese agriculture and led to catastrophic famine in the early 1960s. Although the novel presents these events through the eyes of Joy, both Pearl and Joy take turn in the narrative. Furious that everything she thought she knew about herself was a big fat lie, and that both her mother and aunt were in love with the same man, the artists Z.G. Li, the headstrong 19-year-old flees across the Pacific to find her birth father in Red China.
Except I could never escape the fact that Shanghai was once my other and aunt’s home . . . My mother? She’s tried her best—I know she has—but I came to get away from her. I don’t want to be reminded of the past. (Joy: A Small Radish, p.164)
The story is most unusual, and rather un-heard of: someone who voluntarily goes into exile behind the Bamboo Curtain, during high McCarthyism and Red China, while many strive to go the opposition direction. Like its predecessor, Dreams of Joy constructs a world of political turmoil and extreme personal struggles. Joy is enthusiastic and naïve about Red China and Chairman Mao’s plan to overtake Great Britain and the United States. As much as she embraces this new-found motherland, she is ignorant of this place. Little emotional resonance is attached to her finding Z.G. Li and telling him he’s her father. Following him to the countryside where Li controls the form of his punishment and teaches peasants Mao-sanctioned forms of art, she falls in love for no reason with a country bumpkin who would later purge her publicly. Her blind idealism feels like a plot contrivance more than an organic part of her character. Her narrative far less nuanced than her mother’s. The details about her choices in life at a remote village are unconvincing although the description of the hypocrisy and deceit of the regime is truer than life.
Now I understand how that happened, because there have been no riots, protests, or uprisings here either. We’re too weak, tired, and scared to do these things. We’ve been brainwashed through hunger, and people still believe in Chairman Mao and the Communist Party. (Joy: A Good Mother, p.280)
Dreams of Joy should be more aptly titled Nightmares of Joy, for all the nightmares she had created for her family. Whatever her dreams are, and those of the ambitious government, they are not coming true. While Joy becomes less and less consequential as the novel moves toward its soap operish neat ending, Ms. See gives us a textbook scenario of China under Great Leap Forward, but with more grisly detail: how crushed glass is plowed into earth because it’s a government-recommended nutrient, how fields are overplanted that crops cannot thrive, how people are encouraged to melt all scraps of metal to smelter iron. As for Joy’s coming to her senses, all I can say is, “Duh!”
354 pp. Random House. [
Read/Skim/ Toss] [ Buy/Borrow]