It is a complex narrative, epic, wide ranging and deep in its coverage, in plot and characters, as well as taking the reader deep into the hearts and souls of the main characters, searching for their identities amidst a world that wants to clean them of any personality and self esteem. These are not easy lives or times, ordinary people going about their daily lives increasingly faced with having to betray and expose their family members, friends, neighbours, work colleagues, fellow students, and then having to live with the consequences afterwards. It is hardly surprising that this crazed ideology and insane repression came to its horrific climax in 1989 with a new and young generation not willing to continue living as their parents and grandparents had lived.
The narrators are many, all part of the same family, beginning with two sisters, Big Mother and Swirl. They marry respectively, a man who is a hero of the revolution that swept the Communists to power. They live in a nice apartment in Shanghai, he has a good job. Their son Sparrow, a gifted musician and composer, is also on the path to a successful life. But it is not to be. In many ways Sparrow suffers the most. Swirl marries into a wealthy rural land owning family. Her husband is primarily a writer, and as life becomes increasingly difficult he writes a secret book, creating characters whose life experience mirrors his and Swirl's lives. Both families give birth to daughters, Zhuli and Ai-ming who grow up in and in turn suffer under the same repressive regime their parents and grandparents lived under. Husbands and wives are separated, children are separated from their parents, scattered all over the vast geographical mass that is China, and following an act of betrayal in Canada. It is actually a miracle they ever end up finding each other again.
A thread of despair runs through the story, the souls of the characters having their very essence sucked out of them by the hideous regime they are living under. Any expression of individuality rigorously crushed, any criticism of the system, the work, the living conditions, the indoctrination and propaganda treated in a similar manner. I was constantly reminded of a previous Booker Prize Winner, the wonderful 'A Fine Balance'. It too is a story of ordinary people simply trying to live, but this later novel lacks the sense of optimism, hopefulness and as a friend put it, the joy that infuses the lives of those in A Fine Balance.
I recommend reading this, but don't expect a happy relaxing read. Despite its length, and that it is possibly 100 pages too long, it is compelling reading, written with compassion and understanding. The last quarter, focusing on the build up to Tiananmen Square is by far the best part of the book, and worth reading just to get the first hand experience of what really happened in those few months in 1989.