I received an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.
In Four Treasures of the Sky, Daiyu spends the first few years of her life with her parents, safe and protected. But one day her parents disappear, and she is forced to move to a city. From there, she learns about calligraphy and hopes to make that into a career. Her plans are upended, though, when she is kidnapped and smuggled to the United States. Her life goes on, from a brothel in San Francisco to a small town in Idaho, as she tries to outrun those who would harm her. But anti-Chinese sentiment is growing more intense, and she might not be able to outrun tragedy forever.
Well, I didn’t exactly intend to read a serious piece of historical literature that ended with sadness, but here we are.
The writing in this is really quite good, lyrical without being overly so, and emotive without being melodramatic. Zhang is so talented, and I’m sure she’ll have a good career after this book. I also liked the main character. Daiyu’s struggles are painful, and so unnecessary, and so you find yourself cheering her on when she continues fighting, continues surviving.
The other characters are pretty good, too—especially Nam and Lum, though I quite liked Nelson as well. It was a sweet family they made with Daiyu. The girls in the brothel I didn’t feel as connected to, as we didn’t get much time with them, and even less with Master Wang back in China. However, they were still well characterized and with distinct personalities.
The historical aspects of this, particularly the Chinese Exclusion Act and the hate crimes perpetrated against Chinese immigrants in America, were brilliantly portrayed. It’s a sobering thing to read about these things that happened over a century ago and realize we’re living in a world not so distant from them. But the details were excellent, and it was fascinating to watch a fictionalized version of these real events.
All those good things aside, I still wish this had had a happier ending. I know that isn’t the point, and it was a poignant and moving conclusion, but I just don’t prefer this kind of story. I like my fluffy happy endings, okay? So while this wasn’t my personal favorite way for a novel to finish, it’s still a fantastic book. And in the end, it’s a really impressive debut about hardship and grappling with unfounded hatred and difficulty, but still trying to find beauty and connection.
Four Treasures of the Sky is available now!