While living and working in Pierce, Daiyu meets the romantic hero of the novel: Nelson Wong, the American-born son of a Chinese father, a gifted violinist and teacher. Again, Zhang defies conventional expectations; the budding love between Daiyu and Nelson is stifled by her belief that she is a man. Zhang skillfully discusses the personal cost of Daiyu’s disguise: “I learned to hide my natural reactions, my propensity to laugh at the little things that enchanted me, to rather handle things with terseness and deliberation, not tenderness.” Unable to touch Nelson as she watches him sleep, Daiyu locates her desire in a memory: “Once I wanted a fish from the fish market. I wanted it so badly I couldn’t see anything else, I could only feel the satisfaction of seeing it slide down my throat. I wanted nothing more than the fullness that would come, the warmth of being fed.
Throughout the novel, Zhang adopts a stylistic tic to avoid contractions. The inevitable formality of this device is offset by its exuberant prose, but it hampers its dialogue with a generic rigidity that undermines the variety and individuality of the speakers. This weakness becomes more pronounced in the second half of the novel, when Daiyu and his trading allies – and eventually Nelson – come up against racism and distrust of their white neighbors. The root causes of white enmity will be all too familiar to contemporary readers: economic competition, mistrust of cultural differences, and the virulent desire for a scapegoat. “I’m starting to realize that in this place called Idaho, which they call the West, being Chinese can be something like a disease,” Daiyu says. “I am something they cannot understand. I am something they fear. We all are.” The current wave of violent attacks against Asian Americans in the United States is a shameful reminder of how little distance we have come in more than a century.
As tragedy ensues, Daiyu’s longing to return home and her desire to belong are heartbreaking to read. “There’s a difference between being a newcomer to a city and being in a world that doesn’t look like you, that constantly reminds you of your strangeness,” she reflects. “That’s what Idaho is to me. So when our Chinese customers come to ask for millet and scallions, buy licorice and cinnamon, I look at them fondly, following their movements. I miss you , and I don’t even know you, I feel like telling the miner, the laundress, the servant.
In an author’s note after the story is completed, Zhang explains that she based the Idaho portion of her novel on a historical atrocity. The resonance and immediacy of these barbaric 19th century events testify to Zhang’s storytelling powers and should be a wake-up call to us all.
Jennifer Egan is the author, most recently, of “The Candy House”.
FOUR TREASURES OF HEAVEN
By Jenny Tinghui Zhang
326 pages. Flatiron books. $27.99.