Monday, February 08, 2016

Green Island: A Book Review

We read fiction for entertainment, but often a novel can teach us something as well. Shawna Yang Ryan's GREEN ISLAND is such a book, one of those rare works of fiction that is so grounded in reality that you can't help but keep turning the pages.

Set in Taiwan, the novel delves into the life of ordinary people living under what was a dictatorship, even though the world saw the island as some hazy haven for liberty in the face of Communist aggression. The real government of China ruled there, until the geopolitical world shifted on its axis and Taiwan became an almost independent nation that continued to face down Communist aggression. By reading GREEN ISLAND, you will discover the harsh reality of an existence frought with peril and the threat of Mao's forces invading.

The tale is told by the youngest child of the Tsai family, although the POV shifts here and there, in a way that suggests the narrator is still telling the story from a different perspective. An uprising begins on the day she is born, and her father is dragged into the conflict by opposing the thuggish tactics of the Kuomintang rulers. The father is taken away, a political prisoner, and so the author enters into the questions posed by the remaining pages. How does one deal with the direst of circumstances, when lives are at stake along with personal freedom?

It is a question that the narrator must answer for herself as she deals with what she thinks is her father's madness. She comes to learn that he is indeed being watched, with the ever-present army of spies infiltrating the family itself as the Kuomintang utilizes every tactic to avoid losing power. After the narrator marries and moves to California, she finds that she cannot escape the ruthless government of Taiwan, especially as the United States reaches accord with Red China and Taiwan's future grows shaky.

The prose is gentle while the story is brutal, the tension increasing as the narrator finds herself enmeshed in a nightmare that Confucian obedience cannot resolve. While I could have used less references to smells and odors (the author is a bit obsessed with how things smell), the story is gripping. The overall theme of the novel is quite topical, with the issue of compliance versus resistance the sort of thing that could apply to many other places in a troubled world.

I would recommend this book to those who enjoy lyrical prose and thought-provoking narration. Thanks to Penguin Random House for the copy used in this review.

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