Good Children of the Flower
By: Hong Ying
I’d never heard of Hong Ying before Good Children of the Flower appeared on my NetGalley dashboard, but the prospect of reading an author who was not a white male from Europe or the US excited me. After a quick Google search, I realized Hong Ying is quite popular. I was hoping to be able to add another book to my “books about China written by Chinese people” list. Unfortunately, this book was a complete dud. The pace was slow and the language, while easy to understand, did more to harm the novel than help it. At times Hong Ying uses precise descriptors and apt metaphors, but the overall language was so plain that I found myself bored.
I’m a little leery of speaking about the use of language in Good Children of the Flower because I recognize that I read it in translation. Only the most masterful translators can reproduce a work in a different language while maintaining the strength and artistry of the original novel. I’ve never read anything else these translators have worked on (not that I’m aware of anyway) so I can’t tell whether the translation is bad or whether the original is bad. I find it extremely hard to believe that such a critically-acclaimed author would turn out such underwhelming prose and overwrought narrative structure. Just when I began to fall into the flow of the narrative (which is mostly told in layers of flashback), Hong Ying will shatter the illusion with phrases like “All right, now, let me start over and tidy up my thoughts” (201). The “thoughts” she is referring to were not all that messy, and certainly not so disorganized that they needed to be laid out again.
Because Good Children of the Flower is a memoir, I won’t comment on the actual plot of the novel other than to say the pacing was painfully slow. I fought my instinct to put the book in hopes that my efforts would be rewarded. I was sorely disappointed. Frankly, the story could have been told start-to-finish in about 100 pages. I gather from the novel that Hong Ying wanted to pay tribute to her late mother by highlighting both the suffering her mother endured during the political tumult of the 1900s and the sacrifices she made in an attempt to keep her family alive and together. I tried not to judge Hong Ying and her siblings for their actions, but Hong Ying herself admits that she and her siblings vastly underappreciated their mother. She even hints that she and her siblings expedited her mother’s passing (that’s not a spoiler, you’ll think it yourself by the time you reach that point in the novel). I had a very hard time understanding her family members’ motivations throughout the story. Perhaps Hong Ying herself does not fully understand them either, which is fair. I came away with the impression that self-interest was more important than family togetherness for the majority of their lives.
Without the unnecessary detours into Hong Ying’s life, (every now and then it seems like she is bragging about her numerous awards and ruminating upon the place of marriage in her life, though neither subject holds any importance in the grand scheme of the novel) Good Children of the Flower would be a pretty decent illustration of some of the horrors common people faced during the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. I found myself cringing and on the verge of tears when I read what her mother went through. While some would argue that my mild emotional involvement is a testament to good writing, in this case the tears came because I was disgusted that one human being could be so cruel to another human being, not because the writing was particularly good.
Considering Hong Ying’s worldwide fame, I’ll give her another chance. In general, if I don’t like something, and it’s not harmful, I’ll try it again to be certain I really don’t like it. The rule mostly applies to food, and is a habit I picked up from a classmate. My plan is to eventually read the internationally-renowned Daughter of the River and/or one of her books set in Shanghai. As for Good Children of the Flower, I most likely won’t be reading it again, and I certainly won’t recommend it to anyone else. Reading it was such a chore and the end result so poor that I’m glad I received the book for free from NetGalley in exchange for a review. I would be quite upset if I’d wasted my money.