By Janie Chang
Reviewed by SA
A few months ago, I jot the January Muse Monthly box, and the French postal system was having nothing of it. The box made a few loops around the world before this book landed at my doorstep, at which point I was far too excited about the book within and dying to drink the tea.
Faithful readers of this blog might notice that this is not a genre I usually read – I’m more of a scifi, fantasy type of gal – but I have a fascination with any historical fiction novel set outside of Europe. Double points if the main character is a girl. Triple points if she’s also biracial. And if you throw in some magic, I’m not going to be disappointed. And Dragon Springs Road is all of the above.
That night I dreamed that I had wandered out to Dragon Springs Road all on my own, when a dreadful knowledge seized me that my mother had gone away never to return . . .
In 1908, Jialing is only seven years old when she is abandoned in the courtyard of a once-lavish estate outside Shanghai. Jialing is zazhong—Eurasian—and faces a lifetime of contempt from both Chinese and Europeans. Until now she’s led a secluded life behind courtyard walls, but without her mother’s protection, she can survive only if the estate’s new owners, the Yang family, agree to take her in.
Jialing finds allies in Anjuin, the eldest Yang daughter, and Fox, an animal spirit who has lived in the courtyard for centuries. But Jialing’s life as the Yangs’ bondservant changes unexpectedly when she befriends a young English girl who then mysteriously vanishes.
Murder, political intrigue, jealousy, forbidden love … Jialing confronts them all as she grows into womanhood during the tumultuous early years of the Chinese republic, always hopeful of finding her long-lost mother. Through every turn she is guided, both by Fox and by her own strength of spirit, away from the shadows of her past toward a very different fate, if she has the courage to accept it.
Twenty years in the life of a young biracial girl in China, at the turn of the century. A country in political turmoil, with old ways fading into new. An orphaned girl trying to make a way for herself in a world that will not accept her, aided by a fox spirit who knows more than she lets on.
This novel was simply captivating. It drew me in with lyrical prose, beautiful description, astounding storytelling. At times, it unfolds like a fairy tail, while in others it reads like a dickens novel. We follow Jialing, the daughter of a prostitute, as she grows from girl to young woman, her word expanding, just as the country itself starts shifting its customs. Still, not enough to make life easy for an orphaned “zazhong” (cruel name for mixed race). The characters are complex and have depth, many interconnected in ways you don’t realize until later.
While many events seem improbable, too coincidentally perfect to make sense, the author washes away those worries by putting the blame on Fox, a spirit who cares for young Jialing. The fact that yangs take her in, or how the missionary ladies want to make sure she can go to school and get an education, could only happen if there was a push from our caring friend.
Fox might have been the most fascinating of them all, and now I sort of wish there was a novel about her very long life. She waits at Dragon Springs Road for a door to the immortal realm, where she was finally be reunited with the humans she loves. The burdens of immortality. She was such a fascinating character: at times, I wondered if she was just a figment of Jialing’s imagination, but the world was much more magical with her in it.
While the ending felt a little melodramatic, as if the author wanted us to have more conflict in such a short amount of time, I quite loved this book. I mean, how can I not? It’s just so beautiful!