Book Review for “Swimming Back to Trout River” by Linda Rui Feng.
Summary: “In the summer of 1986 in a small Chinese village, ten-year-old Junie receives a momentous letter from her parents, who had left for America years ago: her father promises to return home and collect her by her twelfth birthday. But Junie’s growing determination to stay put in the idyllic countryside with her beloved grandparents threatens to derail her family’s shared future. What Junie doesn’t know is that her parents, Momo and Cassia, are newly estranged from one another in their adopted country, each holding close private tragedies and histories from the tumultuous years of their youth during China’s Cultural Revolution. While Momo grapples anew with his deferred musical ambitions and dreams for Junie’s future in America, Cassia finally begins to wrestle with a shocking act of brutality from years ago. In order for Momo to fulfill his promise, he must make one last desperate attempt to reunite all three members of the family before Junie’s birthday—even if it means bringing painful family secrets to light.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Contemporary, Historical; China – rural, Beijing, USA – Wyoming, San Francisco; Other Categories: Novel, Debut Novel, Asian, #OwnVoices, Diverse Authors, Coming-of-Age, Romance.
Once again, I find myself having a hard time reviewing a novel, because… OMG this is just SO beautiful! And also, once again, I’m shocked that this is a debut novel. Okay so yes, Feng has written and published other works, poetry (well, duh) and short stories, but this is her first full-length novel. Maybe that’s why this book is so well constructed and tight – because Feng knows how to get the most out of every word, every phrase, every paragraph, to bring out the maximum impact. But to plot a whole novel, where you have several major characters, and to bring them together so smoothly, is something that many well-seasoned authors have struggled with in their novels.
I’m talking about the interplay between the characters – even when they’re not in the same scene – together with laying down the types of hints that practically foreshadow scenes (without ever saying “X would later understand…”), are the types of artistic mechanics honed by experienced mystery writers. When properly done, no matter if we are clueless or clued in regarding “who done it,” we are brought to that famous “a-ha” moment that brings us ultimate satisfaction, even if we were wrong about the conclusion. In a non-mystery book such as this, that “a-ha” moment is often an epiphany or climatic scene that brings all the pieces of the puzzle together in a perfect fit. Feng leaves us these breadcrumbs with such delicacy and aplomb that – despite this being about Chinese people – it reminded me of one of those carefully manicured Japanese Zen gardens.
This atmosphere is imbued in every aspect of this book. To begin with, Feng gives us a small, but varied cast of characters, each of which is richly human, and each of them are on their own journeys, that come together and move apart like a well-rehearsed dance. Furthermore, the aspects of history, such as the Cultural Revolution and its horrors (much of which I knew very little about), compared to life in China prior and after that period, are told as personal experiences, with each character acting as a witness. This, combined with how these people see America in the late 20th century adds yet more depth to the narrative. As I already mentioned, the plot is deceptively intricate, and Feng’s gently poetic prose lifts us up and carries us along its current, through to its conclusion.
And what a conclusion! I’ve often said that a less than satisfying ending, one that just fizzles out, or even one that tells us way too much (and goes on, and on), can totally ruin a really good book for me. Well, Feng avoided all those pitfalls by giving us just enough, and with such delicacy, that I was weeping like a baby at the last few pages. That doesn’t mean the book is all sad, because Feng brings in a good deal of humor along the way as well, most of which is founded in a level of innocence that will have you smiling at the sweetness. In addition, there’s also swaths of hope throughout the story, which makes us feel that whatever happens, everything will work out for these people, even if it isn’t what we would have wanted for them all. Obviously, this glowing review means that I cannot recommend this novel highly enough, and there’s nothing here that prevents me from giving it a wholehearted five stars out of five. (Ms. Feng, you’ve made a devoted fan in me with this book!)
Simon & Schuster released “Swimming Back to Trout River” by Linda Rui Feng on May 11, 2021. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.