By ASHLEY RIGGLESON FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR
When I read Vanessa Hua’s début novel, “A River of Stars,” I was not sure where she would go next. So, imagine my surprise when I read her newest work, “Forbidden City,” a historical novel set around China’s Cultural Revolution. While I liked “A River of Stars,” I loved “Forbidden City.” Hua has risen to new heights.
“Forbidden City” follows a 16-year-old girl named Mei Xiang. Born in 1949, Mei wants nothing more than to leave her village home and become a “model revolutionary,” someone so famous that her story is known all over China. When a party official comes to town to choose a girl to be taken to the capital, Mei makes sure she will be chosen. Soon, she is off to Beijing, where she works as a dancer, attending parties where she mingles with some of the country’s highest officials. She quickly catches the eye of a character known as “The Chairman.” It is common knowledge that The Chairman beds these girls, and, in some ways, Mei Xiang is no different. Yet, The Chairman also plans to use her in the political machinations he undertakes to stay in power. Mei Xiang is soon caught in a web of political intrigue that she does not initially understand. And her actions of her have disastrous consequences.
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Hua uses her characters’ circumstances to explore power dynamics, guilt, redemption and legacy.
Yet she also excels at character development, and she strikes a careful balance in her storytelling. While readers will not always like Mei Xiang, the author refuses to let us fully blame her for the consequences of her actions. On the contrary, Hua successfully makes the case that Mei is a product of her time.
Additionally, Hua’s writing is so assured that I felt involved in the story from page one, and Mei Xiang’s singular voice will stay with me for a long time. And while her earlier novel de ella has some comedic elements, there is none of that here. Rather, Hua shows herself to be a promising writer with extraordinary range.
And though it would help to have some knowledge of Chinese history going into this book, “Forbidden City” is a meticulously researched and textured novel in which there are no easy answers. Instead, Hua’s novel is utterly original and haunting—well after the final page is turned.
Ashley Riggleson is a freelance reviewer from Rappahannock County.