Praise for Meng Jin’s Debut Novel
The books lays the foundation for a sweeping investigation of history, politics, class, physics, time, memory, dreams, ghosts, and parent-child relationships.
Captivating from beginning to end — or the inverse, as chapter one is titled “The End,” and the final chapter, “The BeginningÆ — San Francisco writer Meng Jin’s debut novel, Little Gods, transcends immigrant story classification. The tale of 17-year-old Liya returning to her birthplace in China to release the ashes of Su Lan, a mother she loved, hated, and rarely understood, lays the foundation for an investigation of history, politics, class, physics, time, memory, dreams, ghosts, and parent-child relationships.
Jin was born in Shanghai and is a Kundiman Fellow and graduate of the Hunter College MFA. Her fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, The Masters Review, The Baltimore Review, and other publications.
Laying down a chronological track marked with births, deaths, and life between mortality’s edifices, the novel shifts narrators. In addition to Liya, there is an unnamed nurse bookending the story; Zhu Wen, Su Lan’s former neighbor in Shanghai, who cared for Liya during her infancy; Yongzong, Su Lan’s husband and the father Liya has never known after her mother, a brilliant but ruthlessly ambitious physicist, fled China for America.
Liya’s story profiles a young woman’s relentless pursuit and painful revelations as she fights the force of erasure her mother enacted. Like a storyboard pinned to a wall, the tiny papers colored in pastel hues and inscribed with fairytale facts or deceptive narratives, as each pin of Liya’s family history is removed, past fantasies and long-accepted fictions fall away.
Events, actions, people, and motivations exposed minus her mother’s deceptions are stripped of romanticism. Liya learns she was born amid the terror, trauma, and bloodshed of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, for just one example. She finds photos, letters, clothing, and medical supplies of her father, who was a doctor, in a wooden box stuffed under Su Lan’s bed in the Shanghai apartment where they once lived. Jin writes, “She had put the evidence of my father away, literally shoved it under the bed, then spirited me to the other side of the world, where she had raised me alone, making herself so substantial, so real, so overwhelming that she suffocated the need for another parent.”
Of course, children fight back, relearn to breathe, turn less often to mothers and fathers for self comfort, and in so doing, a family endures. Jin tells this timeless, moving story with a bracing conclusion that does not answer or wrap up the complications presented by a family’s past. Little Gods leaves us to reflect, to consider our present identity, and to decide in what ways we choose to shape our futures.
Little Gods by Meng Jin (Harper Collins, Jan. 14, 2020, $27.99, 288 pp.)
This article originally appeared in our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.