Sunday, February 5, 2012

All the Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan Jepson

In 1930's Shanghai, following the path of duty takes precedence over personal desires for every young Chinese woman. For Feng, that means becoming the bride of a wealthy businessman in a marriage arranged by her parents. In the enclosed world of the Sang household  - a place of public ceremony and private cruelty - she learns that fulfilling her duty means bearing a male heir. Ruthless and embittered by a life that has been forced on her, Feng plots a terrible revenge. But as the years pass, she must come to a reckoning with the sacrifices and the terrible choices she has made to assure her place in family and society, before the entire country is engulfed in the fast-flowing tide of revolution.
Some times you read a book that makes you grateful that you live in this time and this place. Sure, in 50 years time our grandkids might look back and wonder how we put up with .... whatever, but for the most part here in Australia we have a pretty free and easy lifestyle. I do know though that some times that is not always the case. For example, when I was pregnant and having my ultrasound scans, there were signs everywhere which advised us not to ask to find out the sex of the child as we wouldn't be told. When asked why I was advised that it was to prevent people who didn't want a girl to do anything untoward. That was only 14 or so years ago. And, of course, there are millions of women around the world who have little or no freedom to make choices regarding their own lives.

This book is set in the late 1930s in Shanghai, where life was lived by very strict rules and traditions, especially for girls. Feng is a young, very naive girl who has grown up in the shadow of her elder sister, who in the novel goes only by the name Sister. Sister has been trained from a young age to be all that is desirable in the eyes of the richer families in Shanghai. She knows how to dress, how to perform ancient traditions like the tea ceremonies, how to catch a rich and influential husband for one reason and one reason only - to raise her family up the social ladder.

Feng on the other hand has been left to grow up under the much more relaxed rules of her grandfather; spending time in the gardens, learning the names of flowers etc. It is not expected that she will marry but rather that she will look after her parents when the time comes.

One of the most important things for a socially ambitious family is to never lose face or cause offense to those who are better than them. Therefore, when Sister is unable to fill her obligation to marry, Feng is forced to do so instead despite the fact that she has had barely any training and that she is very, very naive.

She marries into the wealthy Sang family, where traditions are expected to be maintained diligently and her sole reason for existence is to provide an heir. Her husband is initially understanding of her shyness when it comes to intimate matters but things change once the pressure builds from his family.

I found the initial parts of the book to be quite interesting. The author spent a lot of time drawing a picture of what it was like to be a young Chinese woman in those time with no choices over their future and by looking at both Feng and Sister we get to see the two different sides of that. We get details of the lavish efforts that went into attracting the right kind of suitors for a socially ambitious family include the beautiful wedding dress that must be made. For Feng there is also a nice friendship with Bi, the son of the seamstress.

It is after the marriage, and when Feng moves into the Sang home that the narrative started to falter. Part of that reflects the restrictions that were placed on Feng. She was barely allowed out of the home and so we no longer get to see anything of Shanghai through her eyes. In addition, Feng quickly transitions from an innocent young girl to a very bitter woman, from a naive young girl to a woman who knows how to titillate and humiliate her husband, who as a character is very one dimensional throughout the novel. In fact, most of the characters outside of Feng seem somewhat limited. Perhaps this is as a result of the fact that we only get to see these people from her view point, but perhaps there was not enough page time given to them to develop.

It was also difficult to empathise with Feng when she makes a decision in the middle of the book (to say anymore would be spoiling). Yes, we knew why she had made the decision that she had made, but it was not one that I could have made, and her initial actions and reactions were quite hard to believe. It was a relief when the book progressed a bit further and it was at last clear through her thoughts that she was haunted by the decisions that she had made. There were some plot holes in relation to this, particularly in terms of when the husband finds out what she has done, but before she can find out his reaction she fled so as not to have to face the consequences of her actions.

I came to this book as a reader of historical fiction, so I was a bit disappointed to see that after the initial set up, the historical details seemed to fade into black, especially given that there were pretty significant events taking place at the time. For example, the Japanese invasion of China was glossed over in just a couple of sentences and the lead up to the Cultural Revolution was pretty brief. By the end of the novel though, I was glad to see that Jepson did spend some time talking about the Cultural Revolution and the effect that those events had on Feng's life even if the mechanism to get her to that point was a little clunky. Feng looks back on her former life and it is clear that she comes to the realisation of how bitter and terrible she was to the people around her, which is very lucky because otherwise she would have been a completed unlikable narrator.

Whilst this book didn't completely work for me, there were glimpses of promise that included an interesting setting. If you are looking for historical fiction with a Chinese setting I would probably recommend Lisa See, or The Good Earth books by Pearl Buck before this one.

Originally post at The Adventures of An Intrepid Reader


  1. It's a shame the second part of the book didn't work out for you. This book has been on my wishlist since I first saw it mentioned a few months book, I think I'll still read it for the setting alone.

  2. Sam, the setting is what drew me to it too.