A little over halfway through Swimming Back to Trout River, readers encounter a chapter titled “The Improviser’s Guide to Untranslatable Words” in which they are introduced to several Chinese metaphysical terms. The first, yuanfen, is a subtler counterpart to the concept of fate. Rather than certain actions or outcomes being predestined and set in stone, yuanfen more loosely and fluidly binds people and events together in a meaningful coincidence, perhaps only for a fleeting period of time.
The second term, zaohua, refers to an inherent force of progress that flows through the world, cycling through creation, destruction and rebirth. And the third is ciji, which refers to a catalyst or event, most commonly a psychological trauma. Grasping the nuances of these three concepts is the key to unlocking a richer reading experience and deeper understanding of Linda Rui Feng’s ambitious and impressive first novel.
Set against the background of the Cultural Revolution, Swimming Back to Trout River tells the story of a family separated by more than physical distance. We follow the lives of Momo and Cassia, an estranged married couple that has immigrated to the United States, leaving their daughter, Junie, with her grandparents in rural China until they are able to collect her. As Feng explores the present-day distance that has grown between Momo, Cassia and Junie, she poignantly traces how the passions and personal sorrows from each of their pasts have shaped and influenced their current situations.
Sensitively exploring themes of grief, hope and resilience, Swimming Back to Trout River is a symphony of a novel that is operatic in scope and elevated by Feng’s artful writing. The author’s experience as a professor of Chinese cultural history is an additional asset, as she illustrates and celebrates Chinese sensibilities within the framework of a multilayered, deeply human story that transcends borders.