Twelve year-old Lin Daiyu never asked for much in life. All she wanted to do was stay with her parents and grandmother in their small Chinese village, picking herbs in the garden and learning how to assist in her family’s tapestry business. Then her parents disappear, all of a sudden. Her grandmother won’t tell her where they’ve gone, only that her home isn’t safe anymore. She’s sent away for her own good, forced to steal food on the streets to survive until she finds the protection and tutelage of a friendly calligraphy instructor. But that safety is fleeting – in Four Treasures of the Sky, danger is never far from Daiyu’s side.
To call the first novel from Jenny Tinghui Zhang ‘bleak’ would be a monumental understatement. Outside the calligraphy studio, Daiyu is kidnapped, imprisoned for a year and forcibly taught English, then transported – bound, almost smothered in a barrel full of coal – via sea to work in a brothel in San Francisco. And that’s only the first third of Four Treasures of the Sky: astonishingly, there’s far worse to come. It’s hard to think of a recent literary character who has suffered so profusely and relentlessly.
That makes this a hard book to write about. Zhang’s novel is based within historical fact, later exploring what it was like for the Chinese population of America to live through the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The racism that her debut viscerally depicts was vicious and deadly, and – as the awful spike in anti-Asian violence during the pandemic has demonstrated – never went away entirely. Zhang’s desire to draw more attention to this lesser-known facet of American history is a just and good one.
And yet presented in the format of a novel, with very little to break up the relentless fusillade of misery over four-hundred pages, the visceral power of the cruelties Daiyu faces lessens, rather than builds. She feels less like a three-dimensional person than a cipher, only in existence to endure atrocity after atrocity. We just do not have enough time with Daiyu when she’s not in the midst of terrible suffering to understand her as a character. With the arguable exception of Nelson, one of the few allies she finds along her torturous journey, there is a general flatness to the characterisation here that makes Four Treasures of the Sky less engaging than it could have been.
Still, on a sentence-by-sentence level, Zhang’s debut is lustrously written – her prose is vivid and aching and full of poetry. Although sometimes it can be difficult to drag yourself back to the book knowing the onslaught of horror you’re about to face, the narrative is at least pacy throughout. Also appreciated are the frequent informative digressions into the artistry of calligraphy.
It’s hard to recommend Four Treasures of the Sky for the simple fact its hard to imagine how anyone could enjoy the overall experience of reading it, but there’s enough within its pages to suggest that Zhang’s career will be one worth following.
Four Treasures of the Sky is published by Michael Joseph on 28 July 2022