Little Gods, the debut novel from Meng Jin, is a challenging book to review, mainly because I’m not really sure what the author was trying to achieve.
The plot — a term I’m using loosely here — revolves around a daughter’s attempt to unravel the mysteries and silences surrounding her mother’s life. Liya grew up in America with her mother, the brilliant but troubled physicist Su Lan, but knows little about her mother’s life in China. It was a source of friction between the pair — Su Lan was irritated whenever she was asked about her past and gave evasive explanations and answers,
In the aftermath of her mother’s unexpected death, Liya decides to travel to China to finally get answers to the questions her mother failed to answer. She also wants to find her biological father, about whom she knows next to nothing.
This is a “plot” that would naturally lend itself to the dual time frame narrative that seems to be the favourite device for contemporary first- authors. Meng Jin takes a less obvious approach however and reveals Su Lan’s life in a narrative structure that seems to echo her character’s fascination with the concept of time. Su Lan’s desire was to be untethered from the past and the bounds of linear time.
‘What strange torture it was for Su Lan to be limited to a linear experience of time. Imagine being constricted in space, a cartoon drawn on a page. This was how Su Lan related to time: as a prisoner. She was determined to rewire her brain so it could comprehend – and eventually intuit – reality as it actually was. In this reality time was more complex than we could imagine; far from static, it might be bent and twisted and tied in knots.’
We criss-cross in time and place, taking in 1980’s Beijing during the time of student-led protests, a village in Zhejiang province in the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and briefly 1990’s America. Each location is intended to deepen our understanding of Su Lan’s character, and provide explanations for her behaviour.
Little Gods shows us a woman who was ambitious for success and recognition in her chosen field of theoretical physics but abandoned her PhD programme. The academic environment was too constricting, too traditional. Her research area represented a paradigm shift, she told her daughter, one that would require entire textbooks to be re-written.
Her love for maths and physics dominated her life far exceeded her interest in her daughter and in people in general. At best she was an indifferent mother, at worst a reckless one who would leave her small daughter alone in an apartment because she needed to finish some work in the laboratory.
… I started to go to school. My mother. andI began to spend entire days apart. I could not stand being separated from her and at first resisted with everything I had. But soon I saw that the could stand the separation, in fact she’d expected and desired it. She turned after leaving me at the classroom door — I glimpsed her face and saw on it an expression of enormous relief.
What we learn about this woman comes from the memories of the people who knew her: her daughter; Zhu Wen who lived in the same apartment building as her in Beijing and her husband Li Yongzong.
Despite all their insights, by the end of the book I still didn’t fully understand this woman. She seemed always to be escaping something and re-inventing herself in another location — she moved away from her family, shunned men who wanted to enter a relationship with her; left China for the US, and abandoned several academic programmes. But what compelled her to be always on the move was never clear to me.
Maybe these displacements were connected to the turbulent times through which she lived in China. Her childhood and school years coincided with the Cultural Revolution while the first years of her marriage were lived against a background of increasing unrest. The novel in fact begins on the night of the massacre in Tiananmen Square when she gives birth to her daughter and her husband disappears.
Was the timing of Su Lan’s entry into motherhood meant to be significant? I’m not sure. But even if I had understood the connection I don’t think it would have given me reason to enjoy the book more than I did. I never felt fully invested in the character of Su Lan because I learned about her only through the perspectives of other people. Because we never heard direct from Su Lan herself, she remained a distant figure and one whose life I didn’t find particularly interesting.