Where Waters Meet
By Zhang Ling
Amazon Crossing; hardcover, 284 pages; $28.99; paperback, 368 pages, $16.00; Kindle eBook, $4.99; Brilliance Audiobook, $38.99; available today, Monday, May 1
Zhang Ling is an award-winning author of nine novels and many collections of novellas and short stories, including A Single Swallow, translated by Shelly Bryant; Gold Mountain Blues; and Aftershock, which was adapted into China's first IMAX movie with unprecedented box-office success. She was born in China and moved to Canada in 1986, and in the mid-1990s, while working as a clinical audiologist, she began to write and publish fiction in Chinese. She has won the Chinese Media Literature Award for Author of the Year, the Grand Prize of Overseas Chinese Literary Award, and China Times's Open Book Award.
Where Waters Meet is the first novel Zhang has written in English, and she was supported for this work by the Canada Council for the Arts and an Ontario Arts Council grant.
"A different language brings in a new sense of rhythm, contextual associations, and musicality, which rejuvenate me as a writer," Zhang says in the press release for this book. "Writing in two languages gives us an extra eye to perceive ourselves as well as the world around us. This third eye helps us to discover not only the differences, but also the overlapping areas, between the two languages. When we start to explore these areas, we oftentimes find unexpected pathways to the depths of human minds."
This is a work of historical Chinese fiction that's a captivating multigenerational saga that brings much-needed attention to the suffering women endure during wartime and their extraordinary resilience in extreme circumstances.
A daughter discovers the dramatic history that shaped her mother's secret life in an emotional and immersive novel. Within this story, Zhang portrays historical events in modern Chinese history that are not well known to the Western audience, including the recruitment of "comfort women" during the Japanese occupation; the famine of the early 1960s; and the exodus to Hong Kong in the 1960s and '70s.
There was rarely a time that Phoenix Yuan-Whylier did not live with her mother, Rain. Even when Phoeniz got married, Rain followed her from China and Toronto to share her life.
Now, Rain has passed away unexpectedly at the age of eighty-three, and it ushers in a heartbreaking separation. Struggling with the loss, Phoenix comes across her mother's suitcase - a memory box Rain had brought from home - and inside it are two old photographs and a decorative bottle holding a crystallized powder.
Rain's auntie Mai tells her these missing pieces of her mother's early life can only be explained when they meet, and Phoenix boards a plane, clutching her mother's ashes, for China. What at first seems like a daughter's quest to uncover a mother's secrets becomes a startling journey of self-discovery.
Zhang writes in this excerpt: "George Whyller's mother-in-law, Rain Yuan, died ten days ago, unexpectedly.
Sure, she had been sick for a while: renal infection, diabetes, a stomach ulcer, rheumatoid arthritis, and the towering Alzheimer's/ But none of these things could cause one to kick the bucket so suddenly. A heart attack, they said. But she had always had a perfect heart. Well, when one gets to her age, the organs don't give you much of a warning. Her age? For heaven's sake, she was only eighty-three. There are parts of the world where people live to be a hundred and twenty - she was a spring chicken.
Rain was not her real name. No one in their right mind would call herself Rain unless she was a rock star or the mother of Snow White (the real one, not the stepmother). Her legal name, as recorded in her passport, was Chunyu Yuan, Chunyu meaning 'spring rain' in Chinese.
When a man married a Chinese woman, he marries the whole family. Luckily for George, the family of his wife, Phoenix, had been trimmed, through death, disappearance, and estrangement, to only a mother and an aunt, with the aunt living thousands of miles away in Shanghai and thus hardly a bother.
What remained of that family, namely Phoenix and her widowed mother, had been close. Close was not even the word. For most of their lives, other than a few necessary periods, Phoenix and Rain had always lived together, prior to Rain's nursing-home days, of course. Phoenix brought her mother into her marriage, like an inseparable conjoined twin. Rain's passing unhinged Phoenix and the worst part of it was he didn't know she was a wretched mess...
Phoenix sat on the floor, the contents of Mother's suitcase strewn around her on the carpet. Most of the items were clothing, threadbare from rounds of laundry, with the exception of a new woolen sweater, navy blue with snowflakes embroidered on the front, still in a gift bag. Last year's Christmas present.
Save the best for last, Mother had always told her, except Mother's last had now turned into a never. A penny-pincher and neat freak through and through, Phoenix was almost blown away by how Mother had packed her reading glasses, a cheap purchase from a dollar store. The lenses wiped spotless, arms folded neatly one over the other, wrapped in a smooth square of silky cloth, tucked away, with a stately air, in a silver-colored fabric box, like a body impeccably cleansed and embalmed, for its final viewing, in a casket.
Did Mother know that it was her last night when she went to bed?
Swiveling her head to relax her stiff neck, Phoenix caught sight of the urn on the dresser and its reflection in the mirror: aureole with silver trimming, intricate floral engravings, a beauty dignified and forbidding. It seemed to have shrunk a little, though, from the day she had first got it. Time spares nothing, not even death.
'Are you sure you want to keep it at home?' George had asked her that day, in the parking lot of the funeral home.
She had nodded.
They had driven home in silence, the urn between them. George, feeling the weight, had opened the window on his side for air. Dusk had just begun to gather. It was one of the few days in the year that both the sun and the full moon appeared in the same sky, far apart, pale and languid. Phoenix wrapped her arms around the urn, as if Mother were cold. Then she couldn't help but be amused. How ridiculous to think that Ma should feel cold, when she had just been through fire, burned to a heap of cinder, as white as beach sand.
Bringing Mother home was her idea, as she hadn't decided what to do with the ashes yet. George had thrown a few ideas around, but Mother's passing was still too raw for her to think rationally. She needed to wait till the dust settled. She had never been sure, even now, how Mother had felt about George. In the beginning, Mother had just been too shocked by the fact that her daughter, at fifty-two, would rush into the trap of marriage. For the last decade or so, Rain had grown comfortable with the assumption that it would be the two of them, mother and daughter, sticking together till the very end.
Then, when the initial shock had faded and she had a real chance of getting to know George, Rain's mind had been too far gone. Mother's final blessing, or disapproval, now lay in the urn, tightly sealed, to be imagined, and buried forever.
What else did Mother take with her to the grave? Or rather, the urn?"