Treaty of Nanking

All the Flowers in Shanghai

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am

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All the Flowers in Shanghai
by Duncan Jepson
William Morrow

There's a good novel in this book, but first you need to unpack it.

Once you get past the soppy romance title and the cover (with its simpering 1930s Shanghai poster girl in front of a lotus pond) you encounter a novel in the form of a memoir of a woman whose struggles and heartbreak mirror the turbulent years of China's modern history. Sound familiar?

The plot hinges on a highly melodramatic lost-and-found child theme. It starts in the garden of the heroine's innocent childhood in Shanghai, and ends in the starvation and terror of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

At the back of the book there are discussion questions. There is a short memoir of the author's Chinese mother, which includes his views on the cultural pressures that bear down on Chinese women to this day. Finally and educationally, there's a list of suggestions for further reading.

The good news is that in the midst of all this, there is an interesting, moving, and quite ambitious novel. It is, yes, Shanghai in the 1930s. As a child, Feng frequents an idyllic garden with her beloved grandfather, and falls for the son of a humble seamstress. Her glamorous older sister is engaged to marry the son of the rich Sang family, but when she dies, her parents offer Feng as a substitute. Still a teenager, Feng is married to the unprepossessing Sang Xiongfa.

There follows the story of her miserable life in the appalling Sang household, where she is viciously bullied by her mothers-in-law, and treated merely as a machine for the production of a male heir. Jepson is good on the ghastly domesticity of this traditional Chinese merchant household.

Almost in spite of herself, Feng shows she is not the only victim of this way of life; her husband suffers just as she does. And the older women who persecute her have been corrupted and made heartless by going through the same ordeal in an earlier generation, in the same house.

Moved by hatred for the whole lot of them, Feng takes an action which will be followed by a lifetime of remorse. When the revolution comes to Shanghai, it seems well overdue. For a short while, Feng appears to find redemption for her useless life and her secret crime by becoming a worker in the new people's paradise, with her old friend the seamstress. But students of history won't be surprised to learn that her troubles are far from over.

Jepson enters with great sensitivity into the mind of a woman struggling to survive in a thoroughly claustrophobic family and culture. And he makes you aware of the price that may have to be paid for rebellion, in a family or a nation.