Linda Rui Feng’s debut novel “Swimming Back to Trout River” is an exquisite meditation on love and loss in the wake of China’s ruinous Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. The book brings to life how repressive regimes create lasting emotional scars on individuals touched by their cruelties. The protagonists are vulnerable but resilient as they leave China to start anew in America. Their hopeful moments are few and fleeting as the wounds of the old world shape their choices in the new.
Feng, a former San Francisco resident and professor in East Asian studies at the University of Toronto, has written a book that’s not primarily about China’s politics. Instead, it is an evocative exploration of the inner life of specific immigrants and the burdens they carry with them.
The story begins in China in 1981 as Cassia, a young mother, abandons her 5-year-old daughter Junie at the home of her in-laws. The story of why Cassia leaves Junie unfolds slowly. Junie’s grandparents live in a small village, near a river, where they dote on Junie. Born without legs below her knees, Junie is not deterred by her disability. She is bright, inquisitive and loves her grandparents.
As Junie’s 12th birthday approaches, Junie’s father Momo, who is in the United States pursuing a graduate degree, writes that he will bring her to America to join him and Cassia. What Junie and her grandparents do not know is that when Cassia arrived in San Francisco, she did not proceed with her plan to meet Momo. She works as a nanny for a little boy, while Momo, many miles away, still hopes to reunite with Cassia and Junie.
Cassia and Momo met while working in a factory town in remote China. Both were traumatized by horrifying events during the Cultural Revolution; each witnessed terrifying acts of physical violence and emotional cruelty. Memories of the period remained too raw for them to share, and their emotional distance compounded over time. The birth of their disabled daughter exacerbated their separateness. Each reacted differently to her arrival. A subsequent and tragic life-changing event fueled their growing isolation.
As the story develops, it becomes apparent that although they left China, Momo and Cassia did not leave their personal demons behind. Their interior lives remain bound up in the anguish of their younger selves. By the end of the novel, we learn the secrets that haunt their lives. The narration artfully moves between past and present while the characters’ emotional complexity deepens.
A separate stream in the narrative revolves around Dawn, whom Momo met at university before knowing Cassia. A gifted musician, Dawn makes a mark in Momo’s life, inspiring his lifelong passion for music. Dawn, too, endured tragedy during the Cultural Revolution. While in San Francisco as part of a musical delegation from China, Dawn made the difficult decision to defect. Music’s ability to motivate, nurture and touch human souls is a prominent theme in the story.
Another powerful theme focuses on the Chinese word yuanfen, for which there is no English translation. The concept refers to the idea that invisible threads, which can be identified but not completely understood, connect people and events. Numerous examples of yuanfen create drama and tension as the novel crescendos toward its surprising conclusion.
I might have preferred a different ending, but this quibble doesn’t detract from the book’s extraordinary virtues. Feng, a gifted writer and storyteller, astutely and unusually conveys the role of emotions in determining life choices. “Swimming Back to Trout River” celebrates the power of hope, the interconnectedness of people, the constancy of grief and the complexity of love: together, a microcosm of the human condition.
Katherine Read blogs about books at readsreading.blogspot.com.
Swimming Back to Trout River
Written by: Linda Rui Feng
Published by: Simon & Schuster