Audiobook [11 hours] read by Emily Woo Zeller
HarperCollins, April 2020
Compulsively readable historical fiction with fantastical elements.
The story opens in September 1937 in Nanking during the second Sino-Japanese war:
The approaching aircraft were too far away for Lian to tell whether they were Chinese or Japanese. A moment later, she didn't need to guess. The spiraling wail of sirens churned the air. Then the bombs began falling, like beads slipping off a necklace.
She had been on her way to the train station. She'd gotten off the rickshaw to buy a steamed bun for breakfast. Now she stood outside the bakery as though rooted to the pavement, uncertain what to do. The nearest air-raid shelter was two blocks away, across from the railway station, its entrance already besieged. Even if she were willing to abandon her wicker suitcase, she would never reach the shelter in time.
Nineteen-year-old Hu Lian, a university scholarship student, had intended to take the train to Shanghai to meet up with her mother, who was fleeing the fall of Peking. But during the time it took her mother's letter to reach her, thousands of refugees have already been flooding the International Settlement area of Shanghai.
As a consequence of the uncertainties of war, Lian ends up joining her fellow students in the evacuation of their university instead. They are to walk westward for 1,000 miles, travelling by night to avoid aerial bombing and sleeping on floors in meeting halls and temples. Classes continue along the way, whenever possible. It reminded me of the flexibility required of education during a pandemic.
The group that Lian travels with consists of over a hundred students plus professors and staff. Each student has been entrusted with a single volume from an ancient collection of myths and legends. They are to carry this cultural treasure to safety along with them.
It soon becomes apparent that guardian spirits are making a similar journey, and that a supernatural being is travelling with the student refugees. The fantasy elements are beautifully woven into a plot that also features murder, betrayal, political manipulations and romance.
Giller chances: MEDIUM LOW - It's a hopeful page-turner with a great message about the supportive power of community during hardship. Genre fiction doesn't fare well in literary prize judging, but this book will please many readers.
NOTE: I recommend the immersive experience of the audiobook read by Emily Woo Zeller.
This post is part of a series. I'm on the Shadow Giller jury this year, so I'm reading as many qualifying Canadian titles as possible in order to come up with my own longlist prediction before the official one that will be announced on September 8, 2020. To see my other reviews that are a part of this project, click on the Shadow Giller tag. Also, please visit our Shadowing the Best of CanLit website to see what the rest of the Shadow Giller jury are up to. Thanks for visiting my blog.