Friday, June 24, 2022

Shawna Yang Ryan - Green Island

Taipei, February 28, 1947: As an uprising rocks Taiwan, a young doctor is taken from his newborn daughter by Chinese Nationalists, on charges of speaking out against the government. Although he eventually returns to his family, his arrival is marked by alienation from his loved ones and paranoia among his community. Years later, this troubled past follows his youngest daughter to America, where, as a mother and a wife, she too is forced to decide between what is right and what might save her family--the same choice she witnessed her father make many years before. A stunningly lyrical story of a family and a nation grappling with the nuances of complicity and survival, Green Island raises the question: how far would you go for the ones you love?

Comment: My latest impulse purchase. I was actually investigating some historical fiction books for another reason and this one caught my eye, for it is about Taiwan and here it is a location/country I don't know much about, except plenty of things are imported from there, the "made in Taiwan" tag quite known.
I figured the author would include historical events in her fictional tale and I was curious to learn something new.

In this novel, starting in 1947 when Chinese Nationalists decide to take control of the island many knew as "Formosa", the lives of its inhabitants are changed forever. The story is focused on one family and how they must cope with a new existence where everyone seems to be spied, especially those with some knowledge or positions where they influenced others. Free thinkers aren't well seen anymore and many are taken out of their houses. Such is the case of our protagonists's father and it's years before he returns, with everything already different. Years later, the protagonist marries and goes to live in America, but it turns out the suspicion and control of those in power in the island follow those who leave anyway...

I think this story was told in a rather dry manner. I don't mean to say it isn't engaging or interesting because it is certainly that, but it clearly shows how much time the author dedicated to the historical research and the amount of information used around the fictional parts. For me, this means there are parts which read a little too much as an history lesson or a non fiction, rather than a fictional tale of a family surviving those times.

In a way, I can't truly fault it, since I was able to learn much, even though it still feels confusing to distinguish dates between Republic of China (Taiwan's official designation) and People's Republic of China. I suppose looking at a chronological timeline of events would help, but I confess I was a little lost in some parts of the novel, with the amount of names and designations and historical situations alluding to all these things which also often happened in different moments.

Once the main heroine, whom we meet as a baby and then a child when the story begins, travels to America as an adult, I think things became easier for me, for there are some contextual situations making reference to western placed events and, obviously, that makes it easier to situate and compare things, since I'm used to hear about events located in western areas.

In terms of content, I can't say much with proper knowledge but let if be said that, as always, when something radical happens (such as wars or annexations or whatever one calls geo-political hostile decisions) it is those who don't have power who suffer the most. I believe the author did a good enough job portraying this when allowing us to follow the family and how the father's abduction by the Nationalists affected everyone for so long. I especially noticed how the emotional aspects were dealt with. Asian cultures in general, from what books and movies have appeared to show, are not as demonstrative of their inner thoughts and feelings, so I felt there was always a certain detachment between what we read and what the characters must have gone through.

Still, I felt empathy towards some of them, for sometimes they had to make decisions that only later on would actually be perceived by others for what they were: or sacrifice or a fight for a belief. Most of the story is told in first person by the protagonist or the POV is focused on her side of things. On one hand, I found this ineffectual because the other family members were as interesting, probably had a good POV to be addressed and often were really just secondary. I feel I didn't get to know them all, and all were affected by the plot's events.  

On the other hand, by following just one POV, we got to have a more clear image of events and of how history follows people, even when their lives go in different directions and countries. I confess I feel a little disappointed with the protagonists' decisions in America (I admit: I forgot her name), mainly the emotional ones, but what do I know of being in constant fear and stress over my family? Nevertheless, since this is fictional, I would have liked to see some more...positive - I know romantic or light might be too much for this story's tone - things happening, so that this sense of hope some characters pursue would have been validated even more.

I might sound confusing myself describing my thoughts on this one, but the story is very rich, very detailed, very profound with historical content, I feel I can't do it justice. I think it's a very good read for those who like different, realistic types of stories... but the fictional part of this historical fiction wasn't always as captivating as I would want.
Grade: 7/10

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