Wednesday, 24 July 2013

The Third Son by Julie Wu (4/5)

First published: 2013
Page count: 310

The back says: In the middle of a terrifying air raid in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, Saburo, the least-favored son of a Taiwanese politician, runs through a peach forest for cover. It’s there that he stumbles upon Yoshiko, whose descriptions of her loving family are to Saburo like a glimpse of paradise. Meeting her is a moment he will remember forever, and for years he will try to find her again. When he finally does, she is by the side of his oldest brother and greatest rival.
Set in a tumultuous and violent period of Taiwanese history – as the Chinese Nationalist Army lays claim to the island and one autocracy replaces another – and the fast-changing American West of the late 1950s and early 1960s, The Third Son is a richly textured story of lives governed by the inheritance of family and the legacy of culture, and of a young man determined to free himself of both.
I say: I picked this up from the library because of the cover, the title, the first paragraph of the synopsis and because I rarely read novels set in Asia. When I stumble upon novels of authors I’ve never read or heard of I tend to read the first sentence to suss out what type of prose it is. The Third Son starts:

"My journey began when the Americans bombed us, in 1943, because it was during the bombings that I met the girl."

Needless to say, I was intrigued.

Wu’s prose is seamless and beautiful, at times slightly magical. I was drawn into the story straight away and reluctantly put it down when I had to go to bed – and then promptly finished it the next day. I fell in a sort of love with Saburo while pitying him and waiting – hoping - for him to break free of his family’s clutches and abuse. It’s been a while since characters enraged me as much as Saburo’s family did, and though I do love an underdog story, what separates this from the other run of the mill stories, is the cultural aspects of Saburo’s submission. It was outrageous how the firstborn, Kazou, was treated like a prince and Saburo like dirt. But, as with all underdog stories, Saburo gets his retribution.
Of sorts.

Without giving anything away I will say that the second part of the novel wasn’t as good as the first. The glorification of America and corruptness of Taiwan, China and Japan may very well be a reality, but it turned into such a regretful cliché.
Having little knowledge of Taiwan – its people ad history – Wu turns it into an illuminating backdrop to Saburo’s life without either overpowering the other. There were political conversations sprinkled in here and there, but they never felt contrived or preachy – in fact, I rather enjoyed them, since Saburo’s father acted as a reasonable man (in politics, hardly with regards to his family) and it was interesting how his opinions and actions progressed when Taiwan moved from being ruled by the Japanese to being ruled by the Chinese.

I’m ashamed of my ignorance of the Taiwanese people’s oppression, and grateful for the short history lesson.
So, 4/5 because it is a beautiful and emotional story about how much one can sacrifice and endure for family and for love.

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