The year is 1989. Eighteen-year-old Bao, a first-year law student, finds herself smitten with Tong, the commanding officer she met during her required college military training camp. Bao knows better than to date (let alone engage in sexual relations) because that would mean expulsion from school. Nonetheless, Bao’s covert meetings with Tong eventually lead to intimacy followed by an unexpected pregnancy. Dutifully submitting to her parents, Bao goes to live with her grandparents after her abortion. Her one-month stay turns out to be more eye opening than her own personal trauma when she learns of a pregnant woman who is hiding from China’s One-child policy workers.
Bellwether Prize Finalist Yang Huang has penned a poignant love story whose roots run deeper than the bond between two lovers. Centering much of her attention on Bao, who is fearful to spread her wings, Huang attentively interweaves various themes throughout the plot. Using historical situations from the time period as well as one of China’s national treasures – the Giant Panda – Huang contrasts between those who are willing to defy authority and Bao’s timidity. Such examples include the bold student activists at Tiananmen Square against Bao’s lack of involvement, and the audacious pregnant “guerrilla women” against Bao’s complaisant attitude toward her parents’ wishes for her to get an abortion. Obviously, there is another theme that contrasts life and death, which is not only prevalent with the guerrilla women, but also the brazen starving female pandas desperately searching for food so they can nurse their cubs.
Amid these themes, Huang’s third-person narrative is replete with incredibly powerful metaphorical imagery of life, in particular, the yellow-rafter tree and the lotus flower. Scenes also include detailed descriptions of the delicately captured, incredible sights and sounds Pingwu County countryside and the bustling city of Nanjing. Her depictions are tightly interlaced throughout the riveting modulated dialogue (back-and-forth conversation) Huang has so deftly incorporated, allowing readers to experience the tension associated with those who live in a non-democratic society.
Bao definitely fits the description of a dynamic character. Huang gracefully handles Bao’s development from chapter to chapter as she gradually breaks out of her protective emotional shell. Indeed, there is a sense of anticipation that Bao will be able to face her fears at some point. Yet Huang carefully balances her storyline with a host of supportive characters intermixed with antagonists that provide enough unforeseen situations to leave readers to wonder what will be the next phase in Bao’s journey. High on the chart of antagonists is the notorious Childless Du, whose involvement with the One-child policy is disturbingly chilling.
Huang’s winning novel is more than another work of historical fiction. Living Treasures is endearing, extraordinarily moving, and its timely message about life makes it a must read for young and old readers alike.
Reviewed by Anita Lock