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.