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Their Divine Fires

Their Divine Fires, May 2024
by Wendy Chen

Algonquin Books
288 pages
ISBN: 1643755153
EAN: 9781643755151
Kindle: B0CL4D3W96
Hardcover / e-Book
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"A century of change for a Chinese girl's family"

Fresh Fiction Review

Their Divine Fires
Wendy Chen

Reviewed by Clare O'Beara
Posted May 19, 2024

Multicultural Asian | Women's Fiction

Mei Mei or Yunhong is a little girl in the Chinese countryside, who would have been a peasant in 1917 if it wasn’t that her father is Doctor Zhang. His medical knowledge is passed to her, and this starts off THEIR DIVINE FIRES. Nobody is willing to teach a rural girl to read, but her brother has learned at schooland he gives her lessons in writing characters.  The rich landlord’s younger son Tan Haiyang has a riding accident nearby, and Mei Mei aids him. The two begin an ill-starred love.

 

Revolution is in the air, and no sooner has the war in Europe ended than China is tearing itself apart in civil war, followed by an invasion by the Japanese. In the midst of this is a grieving Yunhong, and her daughter Yuexin. In this way, we hear about Mao Zedong, and later, the new generation at school is part of his Cultural Revolution. Anyone wise is to be repressed – even a doctor or junior school teacher. Graduating young people are sent to work on farms, some never returning. The former ways of life are destroyed and overseas lands are seen as the enemy.  

 

The tale skips through time periods, visiting Yuexin’s daughters Hongxing and Yonghong, one of whom we later see telling her daughter Emily, living in contemporary Boston, how she moved to America. The multigenerational nature of this saga means there are a lot of names, and confusingly, a lot of people changed their names, especially during the Mao years to fit in with the new regime. To help us keep track, author Wendy Chen keeps referring to a birthmark passed down to daughters, a scar, a girl who never met her father, or twins, which helps keep the generations separate in our minds. I learned about a century of Chinese culture and struggle, with many details skimmed, but the soul-chilling effect on the surviving women demonstrated.

 

I especially like the tale of a dragon lying as part of the landscape, a fable told to Mei Mei, which gets retold to each new generation with new meaning, as we see the characters become the family members, the dragon becomes the turbulence of change. With books and art destroyed, oral traditions are all that is left to bring to Boston – or almost all. There’s not much laughter in THEIR DIVINE FIRES. Think of it as the film The Last Emperor in reverse – a girl, not a boy, a simple life, not wealth. Some people will find touching details and tender love the best part, others will absorb the weight of change and distrust that burdened the people. Wendy Chen has been partly retelling her family’s history and that of the most populous nation on the planet. This is a fascinating read.

Learn more about Their Divine Fires

SUMMARY

A captivating and intimate debut novel interwoven with folktale and myth, Wendy Chen’s Their Divine Fires tells the story of the love affairs of three generations of Chinese women across one hundred years of revolutions both political and personal.  

In 1917, at the dawn of the Chinese revolution, Yunhong is growing up in the southern china countryside and falls deeply in love with the son of a wealthy landlord despite her brother’s objections. On the night of her wedding, her brother destroys the marriage, irrevocably changing the shape of Yunhong’s family to come: her daughter, Yuexin, will never know her father. Haunted by a history that she does not understand, Yuexin passes on those memories to her daughters Hongxing and Yonghong, who come of age in the years following Mao’s death, battling the push and pull of political forces as they forge their own paths. Each generation guards its secrets, leaving Emily, great-granddaughter of Yunhong and living in contemporary America, to piece together what actually happened between her mother and her aunt, and the weight of their shared ancestry.
 
Drawing on the lives of her great-grandmother and her great-uncles—both of whom fought on the side of the Communists—as well as her mother’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution, Wendy Chen infuses this gorgeous debut with a passion that will transport the reader back to powerful moments in history while bringing us close to the women who persisted despite the forces all around them. Both brilliant and haunting, it’s a story about what our ancestors will, and won’t, tell us.


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