But there is also a mystical tenor that cuts through the flinty realism, with a tiger, one of the most redoubtable animals of the Chinese zodiac, prowling throughout, an avatar of the departed mother, haunting a narrative that has at its heart an unspoken tragedy that ultimately destroys the family. A nascent awareness of identity runs through the novel, with those identities – national, ethnic, social, gendered – shifting over the course of the book. If Zhang might be accused of endowing her novel with one flaw, it is that the notion of identity is sometimes mediated through language and ideas that are just a bit too contemporary. That said, it’s an anachronism more discursive than material and one that can be forgiven in what is otherwise a fine debut.
Sweeping in intent, the novel is steeped in the language of folklore and myth: sentences are short and rhythmic; metaphors, similes and allusion abound. Mostly it works. The landscape is captured in its immense harshness, and there are reams of arresting images: 1848, for instance, is described as “the year a man pulled gold from the river and the whole country drew up into itself, took a breath that blew wagons out across the West”.
It is a self-consciously important book about loneliness, belonging and the ferocious delusion of the American Dream. The story is conveyed in a spare, lyrical prose with sharp, pronounced imagery. Metaphors about salt, wood, bones and hills abound. There are times when the words are so swollen that they almost suffocate, rather than serve, the story and characters. But the language is also what kindles the warmth in a book of little cheer.