LONGLISTED FOR THE PEN/OPEN BOOK AWARD
"Compellingly complex...Expands the future of the immigrant novel even as it holds us in uneasy thrall to the past." - Gish Jen, New York Times Book Review
Combining the emotional resonance of Home Fire with the ambition and innovation of Asymmetry, a lyrical and thought-provoking debut novel that explores the complex web of grief, memory, time, physics, history, and selfhood in the immigrant experience, and the complicated bond between daughters and mothers.
On the night of June Fourth, a woman gives birth in a Beijing hospital alone. Thus begins the unraveling of Su Lan, a brilliant physicist who until this moment has successfully erased her past, fighting what she calls the mind's arrow of time.
When Su Lan dies unexpectedly seventeen years later, it is her daughter Liya who inherits the silences and contradictions of her life. Liya, who grew up in America, takes her mother's ashes to China--to her, an unknown country. In a territory inhabited by the ghosts of the living and the dead, Liya's memories are joined by those of two others: Zhu Wen, the woman last to know Su Lan before she left China, and Yongzong, the father Liya has never known. In this way a portrait of Su Lan emerges: an ambitious scientist, an ambivalent mother, and a woman whose relationship to her own past shapes and ultimately unmakes Liya's own sense of displacement.
A story of migrations literal and emotional, spanning time, space and class, Little Gods is a sharp yet expansive exploration of the aftermath of unfulfilled dreams, an immigrant story in negative that grapples with our tenuous connections to memory, history, and self.
- ISBN-13: 9780062935953
- ISBN-10: 006293595X
- Publisher: Custom House
- Publish Date: January 2020
Amid the chaos of the Tiananmen Square massacre, a woman named Su Lan gives birth. Her husband is nowhere to be found; perhaps he has been rounded up or killed. She and her newborn daughter are alone. This aloneness, as well as its mutations and consequences, will stalk both mother and daughter for the rest of their lives—a gaping negative space of family, country and history.
So begins Meng Jin’s spectacular and emotionally polyphonic first novel, Little Gods, which in the first few pages may feel like a story centered on Tiananmen but quickly and in the most satisfying way transforms into a meditation on ambition, love and time. In a particularly brilliant act of alchemy, the novel finds new ways to dissect the geopolitical significance of China’s explosive 1980s through the complicated nature of the story’s relationships.
In alternating points of view, Little Gods’ five central narrators slowly piece together what happened to Su Lan, her husband and the life she left behind when she moved to the United States from China to study physics. For the most part, the story is told by or to Liya, Su Lan’s daughter, who returns to China after her mother’s death to try and unearth the past that Su Lan so successfully kept hidden. The narrative is complex without ever being convoluted, and Jin, a Kundiman Fellow who was born in Shanghai and now lives in San Francisco, holds the various strands together flawlessly.
Su Lan is a difficult and singular character of immense depth. What makes Little Gods extraordinary is the way it examines not only the trajectory of its characters’ lives but also their emotional motivations, the reasons why people do what they do and long for what they long for.
In mining these motivations, Jin produces many of the book’s most beautiful and resonant passages—such as when Liya, nearing the end of her search for her father, thinks, “So badly I wanted to be untethered, because to be untethered meant to be undefined, to have a body rinsed of meaning. I didn’t want my feet tied up in history.”
That Jin has managed to craft such an intimate, emotionally complex story is an awesome achievement. That she managed to do it in her debut novel, doubly so.