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Four Treasures of the Sky: The compelling debut about identity and belonging in the 1880s American West

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A surreal and sprawling story…Historical fiction that lays bare the human tragedy behind the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act.

It is here that the ‘timely’ historical fiction interspersed with Chinese mythology makes space for magical realism when Daiyu’s namesake appears as a ghost. Four Treasures of the Sky, the impressive debut novel by Jenny Tinghui Zhang, is a fresh approach to 19th century Wild West framed around the Chinese Exclusion Act and violence towards Chinese labororers told through the eyes of a young Chinese woman brought by force to the United States. From the story of Dream of the Red Chamber, one of China’s four great classic novels, Lin Daiyu is a poet who fell in love with a boy above her in the pyramid of social hierarchy.This is only emboldened by the Chinese Exclusion Act, which propels the later portion of the novel towards its bloody and tense climax that resonates with an emotionally charged grimness that feels like the Coen brothers would want to film it. For example, for several days, Daiyu maintains her male persona in a jail cell with four men and an open bucket. A dazzling combination of history, unforgettable voice and Chinese mythology that promises much more to come from this bright and devastating new talent. The United States teaches Daiyu that here, she doesn’t need to disguise herself as a boy to be safe, because it is just as dangerous for Chinese men as it is for Chinese women. Faced with racism, hatred and fear, Daiyu stands on her own character, as bold and indomitable as one of Master Wang’s perfectly drawn lines.

The Master acknowledges her potential and here she learns about the Four Treasures of the Study, the principles of which have a deep impact on her and as the story progresses we see how Daiyu draws strength from what she had learned even in the darkest moments of her life.

Although Daiyu grapples with the legacy of her name throughout the novel, there is a more immediate cause of her ill fortune: the sudden flight of her parents, whose practice of sheltering members of a secret society opposed to the Qing court has landed them in danger. Zhang’s blend of history and magical realism will appeal to fans of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer as well as Amy Tan's The Valley of Amazement.

The writing is persuasive and lyrical and Daiyu's account of learning English is exquisite, but the narrative does sometimes threaten to overwhelm the reader's ability to suspend disbelief.Circumstances that reflect the terrible treatment of Chinese with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banning Chinese immigrants. Jenny Tinghui Zhang has given us characters to love and root for, and she has pinned to the page the daily devastations that they have faced…But what Zhang has also given us is the power of reclamation, of holding the brush in your own hand and telling your own story. Despite the protagonist's ongoing cross-dressing which doesn't always ring true, I recommend this tale not only for its artistry but also for its searing "teaching moments" about historical and contemporary prejudice.

The characters are fully developed, the world building complete, the recurring themes consistent and important. But the surge in anti-Asian sentiment fueled by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 triggers a series of events that changes her destiny irrevocably. Daiyu is also dragged into the sex trade and this form of abuse is focused on in the beginning half of the book. The best historical fiction novels uncover a forgotten part of history, and this book definitely did that for me.

The altering identities often serve to examine power structures around gender binaries, such as how men (particularly white men) seem to have access to violence while society looks the other way as long as it is directed at someone socially deemed beneath them (by race, class, or if they are a woman). Her work has appeared in Apogee, Ninth Letter, Passages North, The Rumpus, HuffPost, The Cut, Catapult, and more. My favorite aspects of the novel are Zhang’s incredible phrasing and poetic languages and the musings on art and creation. The Page Act of 1875, which preceded the Chinese Exclusion Act and prohibited the entry of Chinese women into the United States is also mentioned. The room of one of Daiyu’s fellow prostitutes “still smells like her, the whistle of citrus layering the air.

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