Honeyman begins her novel like this:
In Chinese astrology, the Year of the Fire Horse is a bad year for Horses. All of their worst traits--their
tempers, their stubbornness, their selfishness--burn with increased strength. Girls should never be born
in the year of the Fire Horse; they are especially dangerous, bringing tragedy to their families.
Weird idea for Western readers, so I thought I would do my own very superficial research. Here's what I found after a quick Google search:
"People born during the year of the Fire Horse are notorious for being bad luck. People born during a Fire
Horse years are said to be irresponsible, rebellious, and overall bad news.
And for some reason, women are said to be especially dangerous Fire Horses. They supposedly sap their
family’s finances, neglect their children, and drive their father and husband to an early grave."
"[I]t is believed, he (or she) cannot fail to bring misfortune and drama to his own family. His exacerbated
individualism, monstrous egoism, and utter disdain for the virtue of family loyalty and tradition tend to
substantiate such a belief."
The hero of our story, Jade Moon, has the misfortune of being not only a Fire Horse, but even worse, a girl, to boot. She is a constant source of gossip to her snooty neighbor Auntie Wu, a headache for her father's housekeeper Nushi, and a well of shame to her father. The only man with the vaguest interest in marrying her is a brickmaker, and her father, a relatively well-to-do landowner, had hoped to marry her to someone with a bit more respectability. But Jade Moon cannot help it that she is clumsy and loud, that she interrupts other people, that she is opinionated, that she can never seem to do or say the right thing. She is cursed.
Her life's path veers suddenly off course when a stranger shows up named Sterling Promise. He is handsome and urbane, and he carries with him the possibility of something Jade Moon has always dreamed of--a future.
Sterling Promise carries something else with him as well--papers to get into America. The papers belong to Jade Moon's uncle, who disappeared years before, bringing shame to his family. Sterling Promise convinces Jade Moon's father to take her uncle's place so that they can all enter America together. The shock comes not from Sterling Promise's scheme but from the fact that Jade Moon's father chooses to go along with it. Soon they are off to Hong Kong and then on a ship toward California.
Jade Moon prepares herself for her new life on Gold Mountain, China's hope-filled name for America. She learns English, studies the questions she will need to respond to correctly, and dreams of the freedoms she will be granted in America. Even more importantly, it is a chance to begin anew, to make herself into the person she wants to be.
But things do not go as she envisioned when they land at Angel Island, the western immigration center into America. The Americans do not throw the doors open wide for her. Instead, she is stuck in a dormitory with a bevy of other women as they wait weeks and months for entry. Some are turned away because of disease or because they didn't get the answers right. When Jade Moon's father intentionally fouls up his interview, she learns that they are going to be sent back to China, but Sterling Promise gets to stay.
She is furious and determined even more so to get into America. So she comes up with a reckless plan that will allow her passage into America and avenge herself to Sterling Promise, whom she blames for getting her hopes up and not carrying them through.
Somehow the plan works, but as is often the case, America is not the land of milk and honey that she imagined. In fact, it is a dangerous place, and what's worse, Jade Moon is forced to seek refuge with a man who is more menacing than any she's ever encountered.
Two things in this novel stand out to me--the historical context and the language. The author includes a historical note at the end with various details that illustrate the authenticity of the details included. For example, I was a bit skeptical about the use of an Irishman as a bodyguard for a Chinese tong boss, but it turns out that it's based on fact. As someone who enjoys history, I thought the historical note was one of the best parts of the novel.
The other thing I really responded to is the language. It reminded me a lot of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, which I love in part because of its beautiful language. As I was reading I kept thinking that the author had been studying Tan's novel and just trying to imitate the language she uses, but then, in the author's note, I found out that while waiting to adopt her son from China, she "read translated Chinese poetry, reveling in its elegance." So I'm going to hazard a guess that it's the poetry itself that inspired the beautiful language in the novel. Here are some examples of this lovely figurative language:
"The homes . . . were strung like pearls along the river."
"'The sun does not try to water the fields. The moon does not try to light the day.'"
"'Here I can smell the freedom. It drifts in on the wind. The guards carry it in their coats.'"
"I would not have [sic] hide a hundred truths and tell a thousand lies."
It looks like I need to start reading Chinese poetry myself to improve the artistry of my writing! Overall, this is a lovely read both for the language and the historical context.