Click here to read reviewer Shannon Bigham's take on Inheritance.
Hong, the female narrator of this familial saga, struggles with her role as a girl caught between two worlds and two cultures, resisting a history of devalued women until Communism turns centuries upside-down and changes the face of the continent. In traditional China, females were valued less than males, and a woman who failed to give her husband a male heir lost face and possibly her man to one who could bear sons.
In exquisite prose as finely wrought as the hand-written characters on a page of poetry, each generation speaks its truth through females, Chanyi, Hong's grandmother, Junan, her mother and Yinan, her beloved if eccentric aunt. Hong speaks of her grandmother, whose heart is broken because she cannot bear a son. Chunyi passes this legacy on to her daughters, the beautiful Junan and the quiet, introverted Yinan.
The country is in such turmoil that Junan will never achieve the marriage of her imagination, adapting to a constantly changing landscape that she cannot control. The author is perfectly attuned to the lives of these women, their fierce attachments and rigorous self-control in a world ravaged by tremendous social upheaval.
Junan's husband, Li Ang, is a Nationalist soldier, his brother, Li Bing, a Communist, the two men's political beliefs clashing, but the brothers drawn together by stronger ties of blood. By 1940, the family leaves their home in Hangzhou for Chongquin, one of a succession of moves to escape the violence, their lives altered by the Occupation: "The past three years the city had bloated like a tumor with the new people, their soldiers, their bureaucrats and their refugees."
This is China from inside the Revolution, the only hope of starving people desperate for survival and resentful of those who live freely off their labor. The innocence of youth is degraded by war, the scars of personal indiscretions and the desperate love of those who cannot find peace. But there are love stories scattered among the refuse of bombed cities and lost expectations, as the old ways disappear and the land is overtaken with a new sense of purpose.
Affection reaches beyond political agendas, lovers grasping a few moments of peace among the chaos: "She held in her hands a piece of his desire. Without it he was crippled." Others love one another "with the cruelty of frightened people. I hurt him with information and he wounded me with secrecy."
Chang's characters inject life into history, peopling the pages with passion, despair, aspirations and the bonds of blood. Seen through the viewpoints of individuals, the past becomes a presence, the animation of humans caught in a tidal wave of political and societal change.
A rich tapestry of faces, dreams and the urgencies of war, Inheritance is a quietly powerful novel of a family in constant flux, their emotional ties scoring the heart of the woman who wistfully relates her family history: "We can never understand our children or our parents. Perhaps it is this ignorance that gives each young generation the confidence to live."