Originally posted on Leah’s Books.
Four Treasures of the Sky
- Author: Jenny Tinghui Zhang
- Genre: Historical Fiction
- Publication Date: April 5, 2022
- Publisher: Macmillan Audio
Thank you to libro.fm for providing me with an ALC of this audiobook in exchange for an honest review.
CONTENT WARNING: rape, racism, xenophobia, violence
A propulsive and dazzling debut novel set against the backdrop of the Chinese Exclusion Act, about a Chinese girl fighting to claim her place in the 1880s American West
Daiyu never wanted to be like the tragic heroine for whom she was named, revered for her beauty and cursed with heartbreak. But when she is kidnapped and smuggled across an ocean from China to America, Daiyu must relinquish the home and future she imagined for herself. Over the years that follow, she is forced to keep reinventing herself to survive. From a calligraphy school, to a San Francisco brothel, to a shop tucked into the Idaho mountains, we follow Daiyu on a desperate quest to outrun the tragedy that chases her. As anti-Chinese sentiment sweeps across the country in a wave of unimaginable violence, Daiyu must draw on each of the selves she has been—including the ones she most wants to leave behind—in order to finally claim her own name and story.
At once a literary tour de force and a groundbreaking work of historical fiction, Four Treasures of the Sky announces Jenny Tinghui Zhang as an indelible new voice. Steeped in untold history and Chinese folklore, this novel is a spellbinding feat.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this audiobook, but honestly? It was way better than I could have ever asked for! And much like all the best historical fiction books, it taught me something about history that I hadn’t known before. Especially since The Chinese Exclusion Act was a topic that was briefly mentioned in my history classes, but never really delved into.
Chinese people had played a major role in the history of America, and it was one that they weren’t recognized for. Instead, harsh laws preventing Chinese immigration to the US were enacted, further increasing discriminatory, racist, and xenophobic tendencies that were already in place.
We start the story by meeting Lin Daiyu, a young girl who is little more than a street urchin dressed in boy’s clothing for her safety. However, she is kidnapped right off the street in broad daylight, kept captive as she learns English, and then smuggled illegally into America against her will.
Her troubles only get worse from here — she’s forced to work in a brothel, but never forgets the lessons she learned in China, about folktales and calligraphy. She uses that knowledge to apply to various people and experiences in an effort to make sense of them. Daiyu is young and fairly innocent, although she learns a lot about the ugly side of the world in her short life. Somehow, this doesn’t stop her from being the amazingly sweet and gentle person that she always has been.
The story isn’t an easy one to read — rape, violence, and extreme racism are portrayed bluntly throughout the story, but not in a way that felt unnecessary or simply for shock value. Instead, the author’s aim of depicting how challenging the life of a young Chinese-American immigrant can be, especially as a girl alone in the world. And like so many other historical fiction stories that I’ve read lately, it felt completely real. Daiyu is a character that is impressively easy to love and empathize with, and I can’t possibly count how many times my heart broke for this poor girl, and the people around her at times. While it’s a tough story on the heartstrings, it was beautifully done, and based on a real event, which brought this story home even more for me. In addition, the audiobook is done exceptionally well, narrated by Katharine Chin, who not only pronounces everything clearly and beautifully, but imbues the story with even more emotion. Definitely a winner in my book, and I can’t wait to see what else Zhang comes out with in the future.