While living and working in Pierce, Daiyu encounters the novel’s romantic hero: Nelson Wong, the American-born son of a Chinese father, a gifted violinist and teacher. Here again, Zhang thwarts conventional expectation; the burgeoning love between Daiyu and Nelson is stifled by his belief that she is male. Zhang deftly evokes the personal cost of Daiyu’s disguise: “I learned to hide my natural reactions, my propensity to laugh at small things that enchanted me, to instead handle things with terseness and deliberation, not tenderness.” Unable to touch Nelson as she watches him sleep, Daiyu locates her longing in a memory: “Once, I wanted a fish from the fish market. I wanted it so badly that I could not see anything else, could only feel the satisfaction of it slipping down my throat. I craved nothing more than the fullness that would come, the heat from being fed.”
Throughout the novel, Zhang adopts a stylistic tic of avoiding contractions. The inevitable formality of this device is offset by her exuberant prose, but it hampers her dialogue with a generic stiffness that undercuts the variety and individuality of speakers. This weakness becomes more pronounced in the novel’s second half, when Daiyu and her storekeeper allies — and eventually Nelson — clash with the ratcheting racism and mistrust of their white neighbors. The root causes of white enmity will be all too familiar to contemporary readers: economic competition, mistrust of cultural differences and the virulent wish for a scapegoat. “I am beginning to realize that in this place called Idaho, which they call the West, being Chinese can be something like a disease,” Daiyu narrates. “I am something they cannot fathom. I am something they fear. We all are.” America’s current rash of violent attacks against Asian Americans is a shameful reminder of how little distance we have traveled in more than a century.
As tragedy ensues, Daiyu’s longing for home and her wish to belong are wrenching to read about. “There is a difference between being a newcomer to a city and being in a world that does not resemble you, that reminds you every moment of your strangeness,” she reflects. “This is what Idaho is to me. And so, when our Chinese customers come asking for millet and green onions, buying licorice and cinnamon, I watch them with tenderness, following their movements. I miss you, and I do not even know you, I want to say to the miner, the launderer, the servant.”
In an author’s note after the story is finished, Zhang explains that she based the Idaho portion of her novel on a historical atrocity. The resonance and immediacy of these barbarous 19th-century events are testament to Zhang’s storytelling powers, and should stand as a warning to all of us.
Jennifer Egan is the author, most recently, of “The Candy House.”
FOUR TREASURES OF THE SKY
By Jenny Tinghui Zhang
326 pp. Flatiron Books. $27.99.