Dreams of Joy, by Lisa See


Five stars, read in June 2011.

It appears that my love affair with Asian historical fiction continues, although now we are back to China after having been in Japan for a while. This book is incredible.

Dreams of Joy is the sequel to Shanghai Girls, and although it does a fairly good job of filling you in on what happened in the last book, you’ll be much better off if you read them both. I can’t say much about the plot of Dreams of Joy without ruining Shanghai Girls, so I will restrict myself to telling you that it takes place in Red China, which is just… horrifying. An estimated 40 to 70 million people died during Chairman Mao’s rule, which is not surprising when you read about the things that happened during his ridiculous campaigns for economic superiority.

If you’ve read 1984, you already have a fairly good idea of what China was like during this time—which is interesting to me, because Mao took power and created the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and the book was published in 1948. Neighbors and family members turned each other in for not being “red” enough, for harboring capitalist, imperialist, or bourgeois beliefs. They held neighborhood “struggle sessions,” in which an accused person was brought in front of the group to be humiliated and sometimes beaten or tortured, all supposedly for that person’s own good, to help them reform.

The story is intense, and my stomach was in knots for a good third of the book. Of course it isn’t just about the political climate of China; it’s really about Pearl and May and Joy, their family, their relationships with each other and with Joy’s biological father, their desires and beliefs and passions. I can’t wait to see what Lisa See writes next.

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