A western is a popular movie genre, but much less so in the book world. Here we have one that also undergoes a bit of a transformation in terms of the main topics. It is not about cowboys conquering the West. It is about two children of Asian descent being conquered by the West. A tale told with enormous sensitivity and tenderness for both the protagonists, but also the land they happen to be born in.
This is yet another one of the books I received in the lovely boxes from Books That Matter. For a while, I was just putting them on the shelf, but I finally started making a dent in the books received from them, and so far I’ve been quite lucky, as the books are interesting, even if not all of them up my alley. (Beautiful World Where Are You – Sally Rooney, The Inland Sea – Madeleine Watts, Skin – E.M. Reapy, Weather – Jenny Offill).
With this one, I was a bit apprehensive, as western is nowhere near my alley. I liked watching westerns as a child when selection on tv was limited. But later in life I rarely willingly selected that genre. And I’ve had no experience of a western in a book. But finally, I gave in, I think the gold-green cover did some of the trick. And good that I did.
It is a story of Lucy and Sam, two orphans of Chinese descent, traveling through the west to bury their father’s body. The description of the first part of their journey, when they carry the body in a trunk, reminded me of Death is Hard Work by Khaled Kalifa. The terrifying, but also subversively funny odyssey with a decomposing corpse.
But burying their alcoholic and violent father is only one thing that Lucy and Sam have to deal with. Another is the trauma of their upbringing in a poor miner/gold prospector family. Uprooted from their parents’ traditions, but never accepted in their country of birth the siblings try to find out who they are and how to proceed with their lives.
All this happens against the beautiful but unforgiving landscape of the American West. Whenever Zhang describes the landscape we are transported. Yet she manages, only just, to keep the balance between the lyrical descriptions and the pace of the plot. Making it a book about a county as much as about the children’s plight. It is also a story of how traumas are inherited through the generations and how difficult it is to liberate oneself from them if we don’t know what we’re inheriting.
A beautiful story about discovering one’s identity and understanding destiny. A story of a country that not only is not for old men but most certainly is not for children that are not white. A tale of consciously claiming and owning who one is and how one wants to live. It makes for a quite slow reading, but a joyful one, with this bit of bitterness that makes life worth living and makes us appreciate the good things.
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska