The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The four stories that make up ‘The Fortunes’ travel in time from the first Chinese-American immigrants to North America, at the time of the gold rush and then building the railroad to modern day. Two of the four characters are half-Chinese and half-Caucasian. Two are created and two are fictionalised accounts of real people.
So, with so much interesting in the characters, what surprised me is that I was right away caught up in simply how beautifully the story is written, particularly the first section which has a driving narrative that feels poetic and mythic at the same time. The jump from one story to the next feels natural enough; I was curious about how the author would tie the parts together. The writing is not didactic.
For me, it was simply enough to delve into a life of an early immigrant, to wonder about the life of a Chinese-American Hollywood star, and then the story of Vincent Chin, which I remember from my teenage years, beaten to death, being mistaken for a Japanese man, attacked for American jobs being ‘stolen’.
For me the last section, where a mixed race author spends time in China to adopt a baby was the least engaging and successful. It did ask some big questions about identity and culture, but I suppose the questions I am most familiar with.
In any case, I do think this is a very interesting novel… yielding different rewards according to who the reader is. Somehow (fortune?), I have ended up reading three novels in a row with characters that are half-Caucasian and half-Asian (the other two were ‘Everything I Never Told You’ and ‘The Sympathizer’); each novel is very different from each other, but I think it’s an interesting sign of how rich the topic or issue is: What is the power of race in our lives? How do we deal with other people’s perceptions? How do we perceive ourselves? What does it mean to purportedly belong to two races? Or neither?