Review by Brian Tanguay
When Daiyu, the protagonist of Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s debut novel, Four Treasures of the Sky, is abducted from the fish market, she’s a desperately hungry thirteen-year-old girl passing herself off as a boy. The year is 1882, the place is China. Daiyu’s parents have been arrested and their fate and whereabouts are unknown. When news of the arrest reaches Daiyu’s grandmother, the woman trims the girl’s hair and dresses her in boys’ clothing and sends her to Zhifu, a nearby town with a busy port. “Disappear in the city,” the grandmother counsels. “You are good with your hands — you will find honest work.” Adopting the name Feng, Daiyu finds work cleaning a private school where young men learn the art of calligraphy. Daiyu’s hands are indeed dextrous, but so is her mind; she listens to the exacting Master Wang and observes everything around her carefully and intently, and soon she is dipping a brush in ink and absorbing the discipline and philosophy of calligraphy, lessons she will not forget. It seems she has found refuge with Master Wang, until hunger drives her to the fish market and a chance encounter with a man named Jasper.
Loss figures prominently in this remarkably assured and executed debut: loss of parents and place, country and freedom, identity and gender, trust and friendship. Jasper is a procurer of human flesh who forces Daiyu to learn English in preparation for some purpose unknown to her. All she can do is keep her wits about her as the days pass into weeks. Alone in the dark she thinks about a girl in a fable she was named after, a tragic figure who died of a broken heart; this figure becomes a kind of alter ego, at times a chide and goad, but also a companion. The lessons continue until the day Jasper stuffs Daiyu into a wooden crate filled with coal and sends her across the ocean to San Francisco in America where Madam Lee’s brothel waits.
Daiyu becomes Peony, one of the girls who toil in a stifling laundry by day and as prostitutes by night in the rooms upstairs. Madam Lee is demanding and cruel, a cutthroat in a cutthroat racket, and if a girl gains a few pounds or her skin loses its radiance or she fails to bring in enough money, she is cast into the streets with nothing but the clothes on her back. In the brothel nothing belongs to Peony but her thoughts and memories of her parents and grandmother. Although she is young and inexperienced in the ways of the world, she has no illusions about her fate: one of the white men who select a girl as they might a suit of clothes will claim her virginity, and her life will end when her value as a commodity ends. Only by a twist of fate and a desperate escape into the San Francisco night, alongside a half-breed boy as trapped by circumstance as she is, does Peony escape Madam Lee’s.
Zhang moves the story forward with an impressive command of tone, detail and emotional register. The narrative momentum builds as the scene shifts to Idaho and Daiyu sheds Peony and becomes Jacob Li, finding work in a dry goods store run by two Chinese men. For a time, life settles into a routine; the Pierce Big Store is a safe harbor where Daiyu can breathe somewhat easier, allow herself to feel, and even plan a return to China. But although she managed to escape Madam Lee’s brothel with her virginity intact, Daiyu cannot avoid the predation and lawlessness of the American West. It’s 1885 now, only three years after passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act; Chinese people in the mining towns are shunted to the margins, never accepted or afforded any civil rights, and when xenophobia rears its head among the white majority, they’re an easy scapegoat for any grievance. When a white store owner is found murdered, the owners of the Pierce Big Store, along with Daiyu and two others, are arrested, charged, assumed guilty and prohibited from speaking in their own defense. The young girl who has spent years impersonating others is running out of escape routes, but even injustice cannot extinguish Daiyu’s spirit, which is what makes Four Treasures of the Sky a rich reading experience. Faced with racism, hatred and fear, Daiyu stands on her own character, as bold and indomitable as one of Master Wang’s perfectly drawn lines.