Outstanding books are easy to review, as are really bad ones. Those that lie somewhere in between present a more difficult challenge.
The 228 Legacy is a first novel by Jennifer Chow, a young Chinese American. It’s set in 1980s California, in the small town of Fairview. Despite the title, no part of the book takes place in 1947, and only a few pages are set in Taiwan.
The novel’s main characters are Lisa, an administrative worker in an old-people’s home when the novel opens, her school-age daughter Abbey, and her mother Silk, who has worked in the Californian wine industry. A fourth character, Jack, of a similar age to Silk, works as a school janitor.
These four have chapters dedicated to them in an almost strict sequence. And the whole novel is narrated in the present tense.
All these characters are of Asian ethnicity. Silk was born and married in Taiwan, while her daughter and grand-daughter are both full-fledged Americans. Jack, by contrast, was born in China, and this initially causes some dissention. He tries to befriend Silk, in particular, but his overtures are haughtily rejected. The old lady is passionate about her Taiwanese identity, which is hardly surprising, because her husband, an academic chemist, was, it soon transpires, murdered by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) during the uprising on Feb. 28, 1947.
To begin with, however, the characters’ problems are far removed from Taiwan’s history. Abbey feels isolated at school, despite sharing top place in all math tests with another high-aspiring student. Lisa loses her job on the first page, while midway through the novel Silk is diagnosed with inoperable cancer.
There’s in fact plenty about old age, illness and death in this novel — in part, we’re told, because of the author’s experience in geriatric social work. This nevertheless contributes to the book’s somewhat gloomy ambience. When Jack falls from a ladder and breaks his leg you can’t help thinking it’s something only to be expected in this particular novel.
The main reason I found this book rather depressing, though, wasn’t the geriatric and sickness emphasis but the story’s unrelenting small-town ambience. There’s nothing wrong with small towns as such, of course, but for me what ennobles life is the grandness of wild nature, the greatness of great books and music, and relations — passionate, intellectual or just plain comic — with other people. And no character in The 228 Legacy touches, in any significant way, any of these things. They’re all happy to remain for the most part in a world defined by receptionists’ offices, school-rooms, convenience stores and dining rooms.
The characters in Chekhov’s plays also live in relative backwaters, and for the most part, like Jennifer Chow’s characters, don’t engage in discussions of philosophical issues either. But their imaginative worlds extend far beyond those in this novel, and Chekhov’s insights into their personalities are infinitely richer than those on offer here.
This small-town mentality extends beyond Fairview, California, too. When Silk goes on a trip to Rome, one of the most culturally rich places on the planet, you’d have thought, among the few impressions she comes up with is that they make pizza better in Italy than they do in the US. It isn’t too surprising, then, that her reactions to Taiwan are similarly limited.
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.