As the main reason any reader in Taiwan is likely to pick up this novel is the reference to the 228 Incident in the title, it’s appropriate to take a closer look at the references to Taiwan within the text.
There’s a mention of piles of severed heads on the streets in 1947, the cruelty of KMT soldiers, and the severe food shortages under the party’s early rule. When Silk, Lisa and Abbey travel to Taiwan on a three-day sightseeing tour, they visit the National Palace Museum, the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Yangmingshan and Greater Kaohsiung, where they find a 228 memorial. Silk laments that the National Palace Museum contains Chinese treasures, not Taiwanese ones, and in Kaohsiung they gather some of the “rich chocolate earth” to take back to the US.
What are the book’s virtues, then? Clearly imagined detail, consistent characterization and avoidance of bombast must rate highly. In essence this is what some people would call a heartwarming read — taking account of suffering but coming up with a reasonably optimistic reaction to it.
At its center, however, this book appears to propose that by the uncovering of secrets rooted in the past, the present can be made more tolerant and cooperative. Silk, for example, considers her cancer the result of long-suppressed anxiety about her husband’s death. If the virtue of speaking freely about the past is this novel’s thesis, then it’s doubtful if it’s fully realized. We learn the basics of the 228 story quite early on, and its unmasking doesn’t really lead to any great improvement in the characters’ lives. Silk eventually dies, Abbey predictably gets over her school-days problems, and Lisa and Jack find their own ways forward, Jack making a memorial garden for Silk and becoming a sort of substitute father for Lisa. This is all just what you’d expect, barring catastrophes, of almost any lives.
All in all, then, this novel serves as a minor educative experience for those who’ve never heard of 228, and have only vague ideas about Taiwan. For those averagely well-informed on both topics already, however, there’s relatively little to be gained from it.