Book Review: “Little Paradise” by Gabrielle Wang (#AWW2017 @GabrielleWang)

 

littleparadise

I was delighted by my discovery of Little Paradise on the website of renowned Chinese Australian author and illustrator Gabrielle Wang, for two reasons. First, it is a fictional account of her mother’s life story, especially her experience of living in Melbourne and Shanghai through the Second World War. It is a good supplement to my limited knowledge of Chinese migration and settlement in Australia during the first half of the 20th century.

More importantly, it is fascinating to read, at the beginning of this book, that Wang’s stories “are a blend of Chinese and Western culture with a touch of fantasy”. I have read many Chinese authors whose success derives from their literary representation of Chinese people and culture as an “other” of the West. There are also authors with Chinese ancestry in Australia and other parts of the world whose (un)intentional construction of “Chineseness” in their writings may or may not have encouraged readers and critics to identify them as “Chinese” authors.

In Little Paradise, there is a refreshing lack of intention to pigeon-hole the protagonist, 17-year-old Mirabel, as Chinese. References to Chinese language, literature, mannerism, food, customs and folk beliefs are introduced as part of the story, withint any attempt to refrain Mirabel within the imagined boundaries of her “Chinese” identity. The “touch of fantasy” in this case is her mother’s warning that “changing your name will change your whole destiny”. A soothsayer has also produced an oracle bone that is supposed to have foretold her future.

Melbourne, 1943. Mindful of the soothsayer’s warning that she should carry the oracle bone with her “wherever you go, no matter how far from home”, Mirabel leaves school, finds a job, designs dresses in her spare time, and falls in love. When war – not fate – intervenes and takes away her lover, she boldly and somehow naively sets off for China to find him. It is this twist that defines Mirabel as a unique character between cultures, one that defies conventional portrayal of a courageous yet tragic heroine enduring all hardship and bitterness and sacrificing herself for the ultimate fulfilment of perfect romance. Indeed, Mirabel’s journey reads more like an adventure than the simple pursuit of love.

Thanks to Mirabel’s journey, readers also gain a rare glimpse of the life and mindset of Westerners in wartime China, including those of Jewish refugees in Shanghai. There is a subtle contrast between those who think they possess everything and those who are truly dispossessed, an observation that is not uncommon among Australian and Chinese post-colonial writing. Meanwhile, in Little Paradise, Wang appears to be casting a sympathetic light upon the birth of New China after decades of power struggle between the Nationalist and Communist regimes. Her honest but gentle depiction of the goods and evils on both sides of the Chinese Civil War helps to break down common stereotypes in any reader’s attempt to comprehend modern Chinese history as simple black and white.

Little Paradise is great reading for both young adult and mature readers. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning more about Australia and China.

More details about Gabrielle Wang’s Little Paradise can be found here.

 

 

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