Dreams of Joy by Lisa See
Just before I went to China, a friend of mine gave me a copy of Dreams of Joy to read: a novel all about the Cultural Revolution in China. I had never heard of Lisa See before, but from what my friend told me I was excited to read a well-researched novel about a period of history I know very little about. I always enjoy reading novels which are set in the places I am staying, so it was fun to finish this whilst in Hong Kong (which is where the novel also finishes).
Dreams of Joy tells the story of Joy who, on discovering that her parents aren’t her biological parents, decides to travel to China in the midst of the Cultural Revolution in order to find her father. Before long, she becomes entrenched in the mindset of New China, longing to find out more about the country of her heritage which she knows little about. However, as famine hits the country, the reality of the situation she is in becomes shockingly clear. Through Joy’s life in a rural village and her mother’s life in Shanghai, See explores what life was like under Mao for those with power and for those without.
Despite the political and historical undertones of the novel, the heart of the narrative is family. This is identified explicitly by Pearl, Joy’s mother, towards the end of the novel as she comments ‘maybe we’re the families we were supposed to be all along’ (p. 311). Putting aside my dislike of characters explicitly stating the message of a narrative, and the unavoidable cheesiness of that particular line, Pearl’s statement is much more insightful than it appears on the surface. Stating that this is a novel about family does not allow for the subversion of the biological, nuclear family which See explores throughout the narrative. As Pearl implies, the family they have created at the end is a tangle of familial relationships, both biological and adoptive, but there is never any doubt that they are a family.
As someone who had limited knowledge of the Cultural Revolution, I definitely found this an interesting and informative take on Mao’s China. The movement of the narrative takes the reader from big cities, where those with political power are thriving, to rural villages, where those at the bottom of the ladder are struggling, clearly showing the disparity in experience throughout this period. There is obviously much more that I need to go and read up on, but I enjoyed finding out a little more about this period of history and it has definitely encouraged me to continue reading around this subject.
I have described this novel to one or two friends as a ‘holiday read’: a book which I found engaging but not too stretching. I do feel the need to quickly qualify this by saying that there are some tragic scenes; it is not necessarily a happy ‘holiday read’, although it does have a happy ending. However, I found this an interesting and engaging novel which has definitely intrigued me enough to look up some of See’s other novels: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan seems particularly interesting. I would definitely recommend this for anyone wanting to read more literature set in China, and for those with an interest in Chinese history.