Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Review: Where Waters Meet by Zhang Ling

Mothers and daughters are a special relationship. But what daughter can fully know who her mother was before she became a mother? This lack of knowledge is complicated even more when the mother doesn't share her past, keeping secrets from her daughter. Zhang Ling's newest novel, Where Waters Meet, explores a daughter's search for her late mother's past, a search that will change her view of her mother and alter herself in the process.

Phoenix's mother Chunya "Rain," has passed away unexpectedly at the age of 83. Rain has lived with Phoenix for her whole life, even after Phoenix married, and her death has devastated her daughter. After discovering her mother's memory box, brought with her from China to Canada, Phoenix has more questions than answers about her mother's life, especially since Rain had been suffering from dementia for the last several years. Reaching out to her Auntie Mei in China, she is told that the stories must be told in person. With her easy-going husband's blessing, she flies over to China to uncover the missing pieces that shaped her mother.

The novel is told in several different formats: third person narration in the present, Phoenix's emails home to George once she lands in China, and a manuscript that Phoenix is writing about her mother but written as if it is Rain's memoir. The story of Rain's life is full of hardship and tragedy, running as it does through the Sino-Japanese War, WWII, and the Civil War between the Communists and the Nationalists. Each time something seems to be looking up, history flip flops and there are additional horrors to live with and through. Ling has seamlessly woven the twentieth century history of China into Rain's life, exposing the horrors perpetrated on the common people. The leaps into the past are not handled chronologically as Auntie Mei recounts things out of order to Phoenix, not only leaving room for additional information to come later but making the story turn back on itself, winding along, much as a river meanders through a landscape. This can come across as a bit disjointed to the reader but works with the nature of memory and a long gone past. Phoenix's desire to know her mother's past and what she learns remakes her own memory of her early life in China, changing her perception of her mother from a woman who coasted along relying on others to a strong woman taking charge when she could and making decisions for Phoenix's future over her own. The ending of the novel is quite abrupt and unsatisfying after everything that went before, but over all, the novel combines an intriguing premise with history that we don't often read about in the West. It's a novel of loss and resilience, relationships, secrets and truth, wrapped up in a family saga complicated by history.

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