Where Waters Meet
Amazon Crossing 2023
“Where Waters Meet” is a multiplex novel that resembles pieces of a puzzle on a table. Award-winning Chinese author Zhang Ling, in her first English work, lays out a historical drama of three women determined to survive China’s wars and a famine. It begins in Canada, where Phoenix (Yuan Feng), age 58, is an ESL teacher at an immigration center and lives with mother Rain (Chunya Yuan) and her recent husband, George Whyller, a widower.
… a masterfully composed novel that will leave you breathless until the end.
When Rain dies at age 83 in a nursing home, Phoenix finally sees the contents of the suitcase her mother brought with her when they immigrated from China to Canada. Inside were two old photographs and a decorative bottle. Encouraged by her husband, Phoenix sets off to Shanghai to unravel “Mother’s prehistorical existence that had been meticulously shielded from her.” The story unfolds through lengthy interviews with Aunt Mei, her mother’s sister.
Phoenix had often questioned why her mother married her father who couldn’t put two sentences together. But she knew he had been conscripted as a teenager to fight the Japanese in the 1940s and that also he fought in the Korean war where he suffered a near-fatal “dent the shrapnel” head wound that damaged his mental and physical functions.
In a painfully descriptive story, Rain relates how she and sister Mia were captured as young teenagers by the Japanese and how it was Rain’s strong will that saved them from their tormentors. Mia escapes first and later Rain with the help from a Chinese soldier, Wang Erwa, make a most extraordinary getaway. He later becomes Phoenix’s father and Rain’s husband.
Phoenix details her arduous life as a teenager during the famine, when her mother traded her blood for food so her daughter could live. After Erwa’s death, Rain and Phoenix attempt to flee Hong Kong but are captured and arrested. At the end of Mao Zedong’s reign, Phoenix attended college, later migrating to Canada.
Ling uses a variety of approaches to tell the story, from e-mails between Phoenix and her husband, who tells her to write in order to “root out the demons,” to interviews with Aunt Mei, and Phoenix’s own recollection. It’s certainly not a fast read, but a masterfully composed novel that will leave you breathless until the end.