Title/Author: Unbound by Dina Gu Brumfield
Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group
In a nutshell (Publisher):
The sweeping, multigenerational story of two iron-willed women, a grandmother and granddaughter, Unbound is also a richly textured, turbulent portrait of the city of Shanghai in the twentieth century–a place where everyone must fight to carve out a place for themselves amid political upheaval and the turmoil of war.
Mini Pao lives with her sister and parents in a pre-war Shanghai divided among foreign occupiers and Chinese citizens, a city known as the ”Paris of the East” with its contrast of vibrant night life and repressive social mores. Already considered an old maid at twenty-three, Mini boldly rejects the path set out for her as she struggles to provide for her family and reckons with her desire for romance and autonomy. Mini’s story of love, betrayal, and determination unfolds in the Western-style cafes, open-air markets, and jazz-soaked nightclubs of Shanghai–the same city where, decades later, her granddaughter Ting embarks on her own journey toward independence.
Ting Lee has grown up behind an iron curtain in a time of scarcity, humility, and forced-sameness in accordance with the strictures of Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution. As a result, Ting’s imagination burns with curiosity about fashion, America, and most of all, her long-lost grandmother Mini’s glamorous past and mysterious present. As her thirst for knowledge about the world beyond 1970s Shanghai grows, Ting is driven to uncover her family’s tragic past and face the difficult truth of what the future holds for her if she remains in China.
My verdict: A brilliant, must-read debut!
I was surprised by how much I ended up liking this book. The straightforward, clean writing style allowed me to focus on the story and almost immediately I was drawn to Ting and her family’s life in Shanghai, and how they were living during and after Mao’s Cultural Revolution, while Mini and her family on the other hand, were trying to survive the pre-war days of Shanghai in the 1930’s.
The characters were engaging and well developed, and their stories just kept me turning the pages.
Ting and her parents lived in a tiny apartment with no indoor heating, where everyone else shared the same kitchen and bathroom, and were surviving on ration tickets for food. But having ration tickets didn’t mean you’d actually get it, unless you knew exactly where and when the rations will be available as store supplies were scarce and choices were limited. The same revolutionary songs were broadcasted daily on their state-run radio, and students were taught Mao thoughts and curriculum based on, none other than, Mao’s Red Book; although they had no homework, school days were 6 days a week.
During Mao’s dictatorship, everyone was dressed the same as everyone else – plain – gray or blue woolen or cotton outfit modeled after Mao or known as the Mao suit. Anything Western was to be chastised. Ting witnessed an event where a woman dressed in Western clothing was brutally attacked. Ting was also bullied at school and called ‘American Spy’ after being visited by her grandmother, Mini, from America.
Back in the 1930’s, pre-war Shanghai, Mini was also faced with her own challenges. After marrying the man of her choice instead of one by an arranged marriage, her fate took a different turn. Her husband had to take a concubine because Mini wasn’t able to give him an heir to his family. Brokenhearted and unwilling to ‘share’ her husband, she divorced him. Being a divorcee brought more shame to her family.
She also had to fend for her entire family after her father lost his job when the Japanese took over Shanghai. Against her wishes, she had to work for a Japanese official as his maid, and soon, loneliness betrayed her and she became his kept woman. Already burdened by guilt and hopelessness, she gave birth to another daughter, one with six toes. She had to give her away for fear of shame of having a baby out of wedlock.
It was easy to fall in love with the characters, especially Mini and Ting, who, despite being separated by two generations, shared one thing in common – their determination. It forged them forward, and they survived against all odds. Ting, after making up her mind to further her studies in America, took up on her grandmother’s offer of sponsoring her, without even seeking her parents’ permission for fear they might oppose it.
Mini, on the other hand, unwilling to share her husband, divorced him even though it was against tradition, and determined to leave Shanghai, married a man she hardly knew and left all that were familiar behind her.
What surprised me was the supportive fathers Ting and Mini had, who loved and believed in them, even though daughters weren’t valued among the Chinese; some were killed upon birth. Ting’s father was always encouraging her to study.
I loved how excited he got when they arrived at Ting’s university. He was so enthusiastic that even Ting had to catch up with him as they walked towards the university; and how he handled Ting’s registration letter so delicately like it were a ‘fragile treasure’. And I cheered when Mini’s dad discouraged his wife from making Mini a second wife, or during the time when he opposed to her taking the virginity test which he thought was ‘vulgar‘.
This book was a great introduction to me to pre-war Shanghai and Shanghai during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Times have changed for women then and now. Even so, daily, we still juggle our roles as filial daughters, mothers, wives, daughters-in-law, at the same time trying to chase our dreams and desires like everyone else.
It made me think, how different are our challenges then and now, especially our cultural and traditional beliefs? Are our challenges any different geographically? This novel made me ponder on the sacrifices my mother and grandmother had to make for me to live comfortably today. I wonder, what’s their story?
On a side note, I would’ve omitted the last sentence at the ending of the book, and left the reader to interpret Ting’s emotions.
Overall, a incredible debut! Kudos to the author!
Thank you NetGalley and the publisher for making this available to read to all reviewers in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are mine. And thank you Smith Publicity for sending me a copy of this book. Isn’t the cover gorgeous!
Also, I’m following up with a Q&A with the author in a separate post for Hooked On Bookz’s Author Spotlight!
Have you read this book? What did you think? If you haven’t, do you intend to read it? Please share with me your thoughts!