Little Gods by Meng Jin
First Publication Date: January 14, 2020
I received an advance copy via Edelweiss Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Synopsis: On the night of June Fourth, a woman gives birth in a Beijing hospital alone. Thus begins the unraveling of Su Lan, a brilliant physicist who until this moment has successfully erased her past, fighting what she calls the mind’s arrow of time.
When Su Lan dies unexpectedly seventeen years later, it is her daughter Liya who inherits the silences and contradictions of her life. Liya, who grew up in America, takes her mother’s ashes to China—to her, an unknown country. In a territory inhabited by the ghosts of the living and the dead, Liya’s memories are joined by those of two others: Zhu Wen, the woman last to know Su Lan before she left China, and Yongzong, the father Liya has never known. In this way a portrait of Su Lan emerges: an ambitious scientist, an ambivalent mother, and a woman whose relationship to her own past shapes and ultimately unmakes Liya’s own sense of displacement.
A story of migrations literal and emotional, spanning time, space and class, Little Gods is a sharp yet expansive exploration of the aftermath of unfulfilled dreams, an immigrant story in negative that grapples with our tenuous connections to memory, history, and self.
Little Gods was a book I expected to like, but not as much as I did: I devoured this book in a few days, and was completely engrossed by the story from the beginning. Although Su Lan is the main character in the story, we never get her point of view, and her story is told in bits through the eyes of people who knew her. This gave the book such an interesting, haunting effect. I adored Su Lan from the beginning and found her passion for Physics and obstinate insistence on erasing her past fascinating.
Meng Jin’s writing is so beautiful, the voice of each character distinct and vibrant and I was so drawn to the story I arrived later at work a few times to read in bed a little longer. I fell in love with the passionate, complicated Su Lan, the beauty on the way she talks about Physics and the ferocity with which she tried to escape her history of poverty and the person she used to be, the unclear image of who she would actually like to be, what to actually aim for. We get incomplete pieces of her and even at the end of the story, I was still completing my image of her with my own imagination. There is something about this book that just worked for me.
What stopped me from giving it 5 stars was probably the ending – I found it confusing and unconvincing, and have been mulling it over for days now but have come to the conclusion that perhaps it’s just… not that good an ending. Except for that, this was a fantastic novel. I believe this is her debut novel, and I’m very impressed.