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Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square, July 2024
by Lai Wen

Spiegel & Grau
Featuring: Lai; Gen; Anna
528 pages
ISBN: 1954118392
EAN: 9781954118393
Kindle: B0CNRVV4TV
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
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"A powerful and bitter account of student protests"

Fresh Fiction Review

Tiananmen Square
Lai Wen

Reviewed by Clare O'Beara
Posted June 21, 2024

Women's Fiction Contemporary | New Adult

I recently read Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter which has similarities with Lai Wen’s splendid novel, but in TIANANMEN SQUARE the action all occurs in Beijing, instead of rural China and America. We meet the same multi-generational household, the same lack of space, privacy and money. Lai, the young hero of the story, learns much from her aged grandmother until she sees that lady slip into dementia. Caring for the woman who cared for her as a small child, is also a form of learning.  

 

Beijing in the 1970s is a repressive, lonely place for a bright girl like Lai, who is fed praise of the political leadership at school, but has a few dissenting voices in private. Lai’s grandmother recalls starvation and loss during the 1950s. Lai’s father was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution because he was a teacher. Her mother is silent, as life never gets any better. Mao is still referred to as The Great Leader and nobody can say that the man got anything wrong. Lai lives not far from Tiananmen Square and is taken there with her class to view the monument to Mao. With the vast empty square, statue, and coffin, she starts to feel a hollowness. Disobeying the rulers earns children a beating from the police.

 

The student protests in aid of personal freedom are the climax of this story, and for those of us who watched on TV, it’s both uplifting and tragic to read about some of the people who were present. By now Lai is studying literature at Peking University and making friends. I have to say I was hoping that, of all the deaths or arrests we might expect, her so-called boyfriend Gen would be one. Girls were supposed to put up with anything and everything, especially plain, quiet girls from poor families. We were all young once and nobody had ever told Lai to stand up for herself. She didn’t have any role models. An older girl called Anna, stage name Macaw, runs a dramatic society where Lai starts to feel welcome. We know it’s all going to go wrong. 

 

I’d call this a New Adult or coming-of-age novel, but with the accent on women in the family, it is also women’s fiction. Expect some strong language and adult scenes. The Communist Party in 1989 was a monolith, determined not to change, and especially not to be forced to change by hundreds of thousands of students from all the universities. The author Lai Wen walks us through the footsteps of the students, in this powerful and bitter account of TIANANMEN SQUARE. This is a read I won’t forget, and that’s as it should be.

Learn more about Tiananmen Square

SUMMARY

An epic, deeply moving coming-of-age novel about young love and lasting friendships forged in the years leading up to the Tiananmen Square student protests, for readers of The Beekeeper of Aleppo and The Night Tiger.

As a child in Beijing in the 1970s, Lai lives with her family in a lively, working-class neighborhood near the heart of the city. Thoughtful yet unassuming, she spends her days with her friends beyond the attention of her parents: Her father is a reclusive figure who lingers in the background, while her mother, an aging beauty and fervent patriot, is quick-tempered and preoccupied with neighborhood gossip. Only Lai’s grandmother, a formidable and colorful maverick, seems to really see Lai and believe that she can blossom beyond their circumstances.

But Lai is quickly awakened to the harsh realities of the Chinese state. A childish prank results in a terrifying altercation with police that haunts her for years; she also learns that her father, like many others, was broken during the Cultural Revolution. As she enters adolescence, Lai meets a mysterious and wise bookseller who introduces her to great works—Hemingway, Camus, and Orwell, among others—that open her heart to the emotional power of literature and her mind to thrillingly different perspectives. Along the way, she experiences the ebbs and flows of friendship, the agony of grief, and the first steps and missteps in love.

A gifted student, Lai wins a scholarship to study at the prestigious Peking University where she soon falls in with a theatrical band of individualists and misfits dedicated to becoming their authentic selves, despite the Communist Party’s insistence on conformity—and a new world opens before her. When student resistance hardens under the increasingly restrictive policies of the state, the group gets swept up in the fervor, determined to be heard, joining the masses of demonstrators and dreamers who display remarkable courage and loyalty in the face of danger. As 1989 unfolds, the spirit of change is in the air. . .

Drawn from her own life, Lai Wen’s novel is mesmerizing and haunting—a universal yet intimate story of youth and self-discovery that plays out against the backdrop of a watershed historic event. Tiananmen Square captures the hope and idealism of a new generation and the lasting price they were willing to pay in the name of freedom.


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