"I'm not that Chinese, he says, and its true. He's never felt more American. He's finally reached the limit of his Chineseness, the outermost frontier..."
Readers of my last blog post will know I'm on a roll. I read Ian McEwan's Nutshell in a matter of hours - if you haven't read it yet you need to. Anyway back to this post, I discovered this week's read, The Fortunes, in an article by David Mitchell in which he commented on the genius of Peter Ho Davies latest novel. Needless to say, I picked up a copy of the book the very next day; I'm a sucker for recommendations from my favourite writers!
The Fortunes is an epic, generational saga that spans from Gold-rush era San Francisco to modern day New York charting the rise and fall of one Chinese migrant family's fortunes over 150 years. This is part essay and part drama but totally captivating from the outset.
Where Willa Cather's O Pioneers! zoomed in to pastoral Nebraska The Fortunes takes a more gritty perspective via the Chinese laundries at the very edge of the frontier where hard work and perspiration are soothed by dreams of social mobility. This is American history seen clearly through Chinese eyes.
Each chapter is named after a specific fortune; Gold, Silver, Jade and Pearl. For me the novel was provocative, the chapter concerning the 'exoticisation' of golden age Hollywood contrasts perfectly with the threat Chinese migrants initially posed to gold prospectors heading West. Ho Davies writes fluently about the cultural legacy of screen siren Anna May Wong who was the first Asian American star in the US yet struggled with type casting and the taboo of inter-racial sexuality.
The final chapter brings the novel right up to date and completes a narrative arc that begins with migrants arriving in the US and ends with childless tourists travelling to China to buy new born babies. This is expansive stuff yet remarkably lets the reader experience several lifetimes in a mere 200 odd pages. There are hints of David Mitchell here in terms of scale and in the different narrative viewpoints but the voice it uniquely that of Peter Ho Davies.
I read this novel in hardback, in part, at the wonderful Thame Food and Drink Festival
The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies, published by Sceptre, 288 pages