Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book for the purposes of honest review. I honestly loved it and that's why you're hearing me talk about it. This is a no-spoiler review, so read on confidently.
Some books read like you're riding a tilt-a-whirl--the action pulling you back and forth through time for an unforgettable ride. Other books read like you're meandering awe-struck through a well-curated museum--a story in the deft hands of a talented writer who's taking you on a journey. Dreams of the Red Phoenix by Virginia Pye is both, and in the most perfect proportions.
First, the synopsis (from Goodreads):
During the dangerous summer of 1937, a newly widowed American missionary (Shirley) finds herself and her teenage son (Caleb) caught up in the midst of a Japanese invasion of North China and the simultaneous rise of Communism. Meanwhile a charismatic Red Army officer requests her help and seems to have shared some surprising secret about her husband (Caleb). Shirley must manage her grief even as she navigates between her desire to help the idealistic Chinese Reds fight the Japanese by serving as a nurse and the need to save both herself and her son by escaping the war-ravaged country before it’s too late.
Taking her own grandmother's life as inspiration, Virginia Pye, author of the critically-acclaimed debut novel River of Dust, has written a stunning new novel of Americans in China on the cusp of World War II.
There are a couple of things that immediately intrigued me about Dreams of the Red Phoenix.
- The story is set in the years leading up to World War II. Most stories I find are set in the throws of World War II.
- The turmoil and discontent doesn't center on Europe or Nazis. So many World War II stories focus on Europe, specifically Germany, or maybe the US, and if Japan is mentioned it's the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But there are an endless supply of stories to tell about the years before and during World War II, so I appreciate that Pye offered a unique story instead of repackaging the same thing we've heard before.
- The character Shirley is based on Pye's grandmother who was a missionary in China in the 1930s. I'm always interested in biographical and autobiographical elements that make it into fiction. (Hence why I love Sherman Alexie, but that's a whole 'nother story.)
- The publisher isn't one of the Big 5, who publish most of the books you hear about. Lately, as you've probably noticed if you're a regular reader of this blog, I've been making a conscious effort to read more books from independent presses because I want to read something new and different. Dreams of the Red Phoenix was published by Unbridled Books and they delivered--this book isn't quite like anything I've ever read before, which made it all the better.
On top of that, Pye is an artist of the written word. Her prose feels like poetry, each sentence artfully moving the story forward. Pye's words are both fluid and certain, masterful and direct. Nothing is superfluous; no word is wasted. They come together like an ornately braided rope; beautiful process and strong product.
Pye's talent really shines in the plot twists (no spoilers!) where it's like you don't know you're cresting the hill of the big drop on a roller coaster until you're already going over. That's how plot twists are supposed to feel. It's well done all around.
You also experience a true unraveling of the characters. Oftentimes in fiction, you as the reader are privy to private information about the characters, even before you spend a chapter or two with them. While this is helpful for a lot of stories, one of the things I really liked about Dreams of the Red Phoenix is that you get to know the characters in a way that mimics how you might get to know someone in real life.
You get a sense, first, of who they are and what struggles are currently plaguing them; then you learn about who they want to be and the goals they're reaching for; then you see how they come to a sense of self-awareness and how they might be well-intentioned, but are actually going about things in a way that reveals a weakness or lack of knowledge.
I tend to like this approach to character development because it inherently reveals a truth about humanity: nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Humans are complicated creatures and I like fiction that acknowledges that. It may sometimes be more satisfying to read a story that wraps things up nicely with a pretty little bow at the end, but I think the mark of truly well-crafted fiction is when it leaves you with more questions than answers.
In Dreams of the Red Phoenix you're not left with questions about the plot or the story itself because Pye is an organized, careful writer who doesn't get lazy with details, but you're given questions about the nature of humanity and about the complexities of discerning right and wrong, and good intentions versus the consequences of that outcome. The books that leave you with questions like these are often called profound.
In the same way that you're not bogged down with heavy personal details about the characters from the outset, I also appreciate that Pye doesn't give a ton of historical context about the setting from the beginning. Yes, this is a historical fiction novel, but a number of historical fiction writers feel the need to impart a full history lesson on readers, which can sometimes distract from the story. I think the reason for this is because historical fiction involves a lot of research and writers feel compelled to show how much research went into crafting the novel. That always feels amateurish to me, which Pye is not.
She keeps the story as the main focus and only adds details from history where doing so enhances the story. So at the end of the book, you may not be able to recount textbook timeline of the Japanese invasion of China or the rise of Communism in China, but you'll have an excellent sense of what the tensions must have been like between the factions of people in China, and between China and Japan, and how it must have felt to be America expatriates caught in the middle.
That tension is what makes the story. If you want a historical timeline, find some nonfiction on the subject. If you want a damn good story, look no further than Dreams of the Red Phoenix.
I hope you'll enjoy this book as much as I did. I also posted an interview with Virginia Pye, where we're discussing her writing process and more details about how the character Shirley is based on her grandmother!
In the meantime, you can buy a copy of Dreams of the Red Phoenix.