Forget Me Not by Grace Chen
I have to admit to knowing very little about twentieth-century Chinese history . Before I read G.X.Chen’s novel Forget Me Not, set in the second half of the twentieth century (during and after China’s Cultural Revolution ) I knew even less. Am I more knowledgeable about it now? Perhaps a bit. But the knowledge is more on an individual level, than on a national or global scale. Forget Me Not deals with the political events of the time, as seen though the eyes of its main character, Li Ling and his friends.
The novel opens in California, where the adult Li Ling seems to be living comfortably with his wife. However, a letter from his native China, distresses him with news that his childhood friend, and first love has died. His wife sees him crying, and he tells her the story that he never told her before. The narrative moves to back in time to Hong Kong, where a nine-year old Li Ling is living with his grandparents, while his parents are working in Shanghai. However, with the Cultural Revolution taking hold, it looks suspicious for Li Ling’s parents to have a son living in Hong Kong, which is not considered a part of China proper. So Li Ling leaves the only home that he can remember, and his loving grandparents behind, and travels to Shanghai to live with parents, who are little more than strangers to him. Fortunately, he quickly comes to love them, and makes several important friends in Shanghai. One is the beautiful Lily Zhang- his classmate and protector in his early days at school. The other is Big Head (yes, that is a nickname, but it is one used throughout the book!) whom he meets at violin lessons.
Lily’s father is a history professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, and is considered an enemy of the new regime, based on some historical books and articles that he’d written during his career. Li Ling and Big Head come up with a daring plan to help Lily break her father out of prison, and smuggle him out of Shanghai to the countryside. Their plan is successful, at least, for a while, but it separates Li Ling from his beloved Lily. He’s soon separated from Big Head as well, when Big Head is sent to the countryside to do farm work, while Li Ling is permitted to remain in Shanghai since he is his parent’s only child. Looking for companionship, Li Ling joins the Communist Youth League, an action that gets him into more trouble than he ever anticipated. With Mao’s death, more changes come to China, and Li Ling is able to attend university, where as coincidence would have it, he is reunited with Lily. After some hesitation on her part, the two resume their friendship, Now, both in their twenties, it quickly becomes romantic.
Li Ling narrates his daily life under the various regime changes and his adjustment to each. What he doesn’t experience first-hand, his friends recount. But while the uninformed reader can understand the experiences of the individual, the novel never really goes into the reason for these experiences on a larger level. For example, why is it believed that school children need “re-education”? Why is Big Head sent to do farm work? Why is Li Ling allowed to stay in the city because he is an only child? Why are jobs assigned arbitrarily for that matter, rather than based on skill? I might have appreciated more information regarding some of these questions.
However, it is both fascinating and horrifying to hear about some of the things that these characters endure. Some of it almost defies belief! But as they say, “truth is stranger than fiction!” When Li Ling’s father, a surgeon, loses his job as a medical doctor, he is forced to be a hospital janitor. I felt bad for him. It also seemed like a tremendous waste of a valuable skill. When we learn that surgery is now being performed by Red Guards who “practice” their new skills on patients, I cringed!
People living under these circumstances are forced to take desperate actions at times, in order to survive. Li Ling experiences the time period from a somewhat sheltered vantage point. He faces danger, but nowhere near the terror experienced by his friends, who have to fight to survive. Both Big Head and Lily face the possibility of death from starvation at some point. During her time away from Li Ling, a starving, desperate Lily was forced to make a decision that will shape both of their futures. When they are reunited, she shelters him from this truth- for a time. Here the reader knows that something is wrong, but not what. While Li Ling dismisses Lily’s hesitation, the reader is waiting for the other shoe to drop. And it does. Eventually she becomes unable to keep her secret. It is a secret for which Li Ling resents her for at first, but comes to understand many years later.
Forget Me Not is a fairly short book at 246 pages. Yet it covers nearly thirty years of Chinese history from the point of view of several different characters. It also creates a love story in which the reader becomes invested. Li Ling is a fully drawn character with many strengths and many flaws. Lily is a harder character to know, but that is because we see her through Li Ling’s eyes. As much as he loves her, she always retains an air of mystery. Readers looking for a novel with the scope of an epic but without the length, need look no further than Forget Me Not. It transports the reader to a country of beauty and violence. Cultural values and traditions may be different from what is familiar, but the feelings of love, friendship, hurt, betrayal and hope that the characters experience should be very easy for western readers to understand and identify with.