Book review: Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

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When 19-year-old American Joy Louie discovers her life so far has been ‘one big fat lie,’ she looks to a new future in China with the father she has never met...

But the year is 1957 and Chairman Mao has just launched his Great Leap Forward ... will his promised land be Joy’s salvation or will her hopes drown in a sea of Red?

For those readers whose knowledge of Mao’s disastrous ‘New Society’ project is sketchy, Lisa See’s mesmerising novel will be a very revealing history lesson.

Mao implemented a five-year plan to modernise China’s economy through the twin methods of industry and agriculture. Thus the country was turned into a series of communes which would provide all that was needed.

But political beliefs took precedence over common sense and communes faced impossible tasks and targets. Those who complained were imprisoned, too many agricultural workers were seconded into industry, harvests failed and by 1962 around 20 million people had died of starvation or diseases related to lack of food.

In Dreams of Joy, See takes up the tale of sisters Pearl and May Chin who won hearts and minds in her 2009 novel Shanghai Girls which charted their momentous journey from 1930s Communist China to a new life in Los Angeles’s Chinatown.

Joy is May’s daughter but through past complications has been raised to believe that Pearl is her mother. Angry at her family’s hidden secrets, she decides to run away to Shanghai to find her birth father Li Zhi-ge, the celebrated artist known as ZG, and be a part of the new China.

Stripped of her passport and her bras (a sign of Western decadence) on arrival in Shanghai, Joy finds her father and follows him to Green Dragon Village, a collective where he teaches the local people how to make posters.

Dazzled by her father and blinded by idealism and defiance, Joy throws herself into the New Society of Red China, heedless of the dangers of the communist regime.

She is courted by farmer Feng Tao whose collective mentality runs to a marriage proposal that includes the immortal lines: ‘I’m the right age. We aren’t blood relatives up to the third degree of relationship. Neither of us has any diseases.’

Meanwhile, Pearl is determined to save her daughter, no matter what the personal cost, and returns to China where each passing season is taking its toll of hardship.

From the crowded city of Shanghai to remote villages, Pearl confronts old demons and almost insurmountable challenges as she follows Joy, hoping for reconciliation.

Yet even as their separate journeys converge, one of the most tragic episodes in China’s history is about to threaten their lives...

See’s extensively researched novel is rich in detail, atmosphere and history as well as telling a passionate, moving and intensely personal story of a family tested by tragedy but redeemed by love and forgiveness.

(Bloomsbury, paperback, £11.99)