Read by Catherine Ho and Joel de la Fuente
Published April 2020 by Riverhead Books
Source: checked out from my local library
Publisher's Summary:Ba dies in the night; Ma is already gone. Newly orphaned children of immigrants, Lucy and Sam are suddenly alone in a land that refutes their existence. Fleeing the threats of their western mining town, they set off to bury their father in the only way that will set them free from their past. Along the way, they encounter giant buffalo bones, tiger paw prints, and the specters of a ravaged landscape as well as family secrets, sibling rivalry, and glimpses of a different kind of future.
I've been struggling with writing this review. I've put it off repeatedly. I know I'm supposed to have been blown away by this book; it was on the Booker Prize long list, for heaven's sake. It's like nothing I've ever read before, the writing is impressive and the narrators are terrific. Zhang shows us the Wild West in a way that we've never seen before, an American West populated by the kind of people who have been conspicuously absent in other stories about the settling of America.
Finally I decided it was time to really think about this book. It was another one of those books that made me wonder if I just wasn't smart enough to "get it." Then two things came to me. As original as this story is, it is also a quest story, a trope I'm very familiar with. And then there are the similarities to William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Zhang's book is entirely her own story but much of it also entails a family carting a dead body around, looking for a place to bury it, and even has a chapter where Ba takes over the narration, much as as Faulkner's Addie Bundren did. Once I realized those things, I knew that my feelings about this book had nothing to do with me not being smart enough.
There were, though, a number of things played against this book for me. First, it was a terrible time for me to be reading a book so focused on death and so unremittingly sad. It was too soon after my mom died. Then I listened to about two-thirds of it before my loan expired and it took several weeks for me to get it back. I'd lost the flow. The things that had pulled me in seemed to be gone. All I was hearing, when I picked it back up again, was unrelenting trauma.
I began to be a little upset with Zhang for all the terrible things she was putting Lucy through, for all that pain she had heaped on Sam. Clearly it was a book that made me care about the characters. It's a book that I'll be thinking about for a long while. Which makes me really wish that I had read it at a different time, without that break, and maybe with a better understanding, going in, how very dark it is.