Sunday, August 30, 2009

Book Review: The Magpie Bridge by Liu Hong

The Magpie Bridge - Liu Hong

Jiao Mei is a young Chinese national, studying in England and living with Barbara, her late father’s female companion.
Despite bouts of homesickness, and a longing for the salty and spicy Sichuan food of her homeland, Jiao Mei is enjoying her time in London, has made friends at the university she attends, and is in a new and promising relationship with an architect named Ken.
However, life as she knows it is about to change when she is one day woken by a young Chinese woman who claims to be her grandmother. Despite her disbelief about the apparition’s declaration, Jiao Mei finds herself conceding that the woman is who she says she is, despite having been dead for several years.
The woman, Tie Mei, not only calls Jiao Mei by her childhood nickname, but she imparts knowledge about their family’s painful and complex past and reveals secrets that not even Jiao Mei is aware of.
Tie Mei also gives her granddaughter a message that is becoming increasingly hard to ignore- Jiao Mei is pregnant with Ken’s child, and she has the family reputation to uphold.

What I gained from reading this book:
This novel gives a fascinating insight into Chinese culture, and the way that Jiao Mei assimilates into the English way of life is representative of how so many foreigners have had to adapt to the Western world. Readers are able to see London from the point of view of Jiao Mei, but also through the eyes of her grandmother, who had never encountered ‘foreign devils’ before her death. Tie Mei’s reluctant acceptance of her granddaughter’s choices, and her gradual recognition of a life far different from her own as a young woman are also represented by the author, who is able to tell the story by shifting between the imperial gardens of nineteenth-century Beijing, and the grey bleakness of modern-day England.

This novel is filled with old Chinese folklore, all of which contributes to the storyline, and gives the story a unique edge over others that have similar plots. Even the title of the novel, The Magpie Bridge, is taken from one of the folk stories that Jiao Mei recounts to her boyfriend Ken. It’s refreshing to see new literature mixed in with remnants of old stories that have been passed down through time.

Sometimes Jiao Mei’s representations of the characters in the novel seem contradictory, and although this is similar to real life, it can be disconcerting to readers. An example of this can be seen in Barbara’s boyfriend Bill. At times, Jiao Mei seems to despise him for always being around the house and being so sarcastic, yet she also seems to respect him for the way he treats Barbara, and she even appreciates how he sometimes smells of cigarettes. But even though she professes to sometimes like him, in actuality she barely tolerates him and goes out of her way to avoid him. While these actions may not be a problem on their own, Jiao Mei’s indecision about him tends to annoy after a while, and is also a common thread among several of the other characters in the story.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Genre: Family/ Relationships

Recommended for: People who are interested in old Chinese legends and superstitions, mixed with the reality of modern life.

Australians can buy the book by clicking the picture below:

The Magpie Bridge

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