In a note at the end of her masterful second novel, Vanessa Hua (A River of Stars) writes that “fiction flourishes where the official record ends.” Imagination fills in the details.
Forbidden City, the story of an impoverished peasant girl caught up in the tumult of Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s China, comes to life through the fullness of Hua’s imagination. In 1965, the novel’s narrator, Mei Xiang, is approaching 16 years old when a government official ventures into the countryside in search of young girls to join the chairman’s dance troupe.
Mei is not the prettiest girl or the best dancer in her desperately poor, rural town, but she is the smartest, wiliest and most ambitious, with dreams of becoming a revolutionary icon. She blackmails the town headman and is soon ensconced in the Lake Palaces, Mao’s residence in Peking, along with other comely young dancers recruited from across China.
Mei seizes the attention of the 72-year-old chairman with her aggressive intelligence and peasant wisdom. She becomes his confidant and relishes her special status. Mao teaches her to swim. He has an interest in ballroom dancing, foreign music and books. He is sometimes funny and appreciates her jokes. Except for the sex, she enjoys his company.
Mao also falls into fugue states. Mei witnesses his impassive lack of empathy for others and his depression about his semi-retirement. For a while, Mei believes she is cunning enough to avoid losing his interest. His affection for her incites envy from the other girls and concern from Madame Mao, his wife.
Hua brilliantly conveys the emotional and physical reverberations of the rivalries among the girls, who are more vulnerable and less worldly than they understand. Similarly, Hua keenly portrays the discord among Mao’s underlings, who fear, adore or loathe him. It is apparent that, soon enough, shivers of turmoil will burst forth in the brutal Cultural Revolution.
For her part, Mei eagerly participates in Mao’s plan to humiliate an important political rival, and this becomes the slow-burning match that ignites the national conflagration. It is Mei’s highest moment and just two steps away from her lowest.
By its end, Forbidden City has brought the reader into the beating heart of human history. It is literary historical fiction at its finest.