Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan

Posted February 18, 2016 by Taryn in Reviews / 0 Comments

I received this book for free from First to Read in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Green Island by Shawna Yang RyanGreen Island by Shawna Yang Ryan
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on February 23rd 2016
Genres: Asian American, Cultural Heritage, Fiction, Sagas
Pages: 400
Format: Electronic ARC
Source: First to Read

A brutal, beautifully written family epic that is set during the political turmoil in post-WWII Taiwan. The story of the Tsai family spans six decades and is seamlessly woven around actual events. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys realistic historical fiction and enjoys deeply touching stories about family.

Something had happened here once, but other things had too, and life went on. We have to remind ourselves to remember

The youngest daughter of the Tsai family is born in Taipei on the night that the 228 Massacre* begins. After the initial civilian uprising, the governor-general calls a meeting under the guise of reaching out and establishing peace. Baba, her father, goes to the meeting in good faith and politely expresses his desire for a democratic Taiwan. A few days later Baba is taken from his home, not to heard from again for a decade. When Baba returns home, he is a changed man and unrecognizable to his family. The youngest daughter, our unnamed narrator who was a newborn when he was taken, has a hard time relating to her father, but he takes a special interest in her. She is angry with him when he makes a decision she considers dishonorable, but decades later she too has to choose between what is right and her family’s survival.

Thousands of husbands disappeared in those weeks. Sons as young as twelve. Brothers. Friends. What better way to remake society, my mother thought, than to eliminate the teachers and principals, the students, the lawyers and doctors—truly, anybody who had an opinion and a voice? Beyond the river, execution grounds, field after field irrigated with blood, waited to be discovered. Buildings would crush the bones.

This ARC was gifted rather than requested. I have to admit that I wasn’t terribly excited about it. The cover and title didn’t stand out for me and I have a negative knee-jerk reaction when I see the words love, betrayal and historical fiction in the same paragraph! That was unfair of me because this book was wonderful and I am so grateful that I got the chance to read it. It had me hooked within the first few chapters.

Shawna Yang Ryan’s writing is beautiful and poetic. The book felt so deeply personal, that I was surprised when I read the author’s bio and it wasn’t at least partially a memoir! The setting is richly drawn. I felt like I was actually in Taiwan and could almost feel the steamy humidity coming off the pages. The author is able to explain the historical context without interrupting the story by sounding like a textbook. It isn’t necessary to have prior knowledge of Taiwan’s history, but I included a short timeline at the end of this review. A general chronology helps me better understand the complexities when I read historical fiction about new-to-me subjects.

“The loss of freedom isn’t a restriction of movement; it’s the unending feeling of being watched.”

Green Island sounds like a pleasant place, but it is where political prisoners were kept during the decades of martial law in Taiwan. There are some violent scenes involving torture. While the story is mostly told from the perspective of the youngest daughter, Ryan occasionally slips into the consciousness of other family members, including the father while he is imprisoned. Green Island isn’t always the easiest book to read because of the brutality the characters experience, but I couldn’t put it down because of how deeply she made me care for the Tsai family. After the narrator moved to the United States, I longed for Taiwan. I missed the interactions she had with her parents and siblings. The author nailed the complicated relationships between family members. The four Tsai children are so different and each play a different role in the family. We don’t spend much time with the oldest brother Dua Hyan, but he becomes one of the most interesting characters. His choices are the most self-serving, but like everyone else he feels his choices are made for the right reasons.

I realized that this was what Mama had meant by love. A shared experience, a shared history, a shared trauma: this is what made us a family. No one else could understand it…I thought of all the moments growing up when I had disliked my family—my resentment of my father, my disgust at my mother, my anger at my siblings. Of all the families in the world, why was I born into this family? I’d thought. As if just dumb fate had brought us together. Now I understood there was something stronger than fate. Choice. It was ugly and quotidian and lacked romance, and that was exactly what gave it its strength.

I loved Baba and the bond he has with his youngest daughter. Baba was a sensible, justice-minded man before he was taken. When he returns, he is hardened and paranoid. The narrator is the only member of the family who has no memory of him and can’t compare him to the person he used to be. As a child, she is unable to make sense of her father, but decades later the political unrest of her home country follow her to the USA and she is asked to make sacrifices for her own family’s survival. She begins to see reflections of his life in her own journey. “There was absolutely no honor in survival.” The book repeatedly asks: “what would you sacrifice for the ones you love?” Some characters will do anything to keep their families together, while others sacrifice anything for their homeland and a better life for future generations.

Wei had told me a gentler era was encroaching upon Taiwan. Brutality belonged to the previous decade. Does brutality ever get old? I wondered. Each generation brings a new group of men who have not yet learned the guilt of the last. They need to feel bones breaking under their very own fingers to know for sure how they feel about it.

The narrator’s life mirrors her parents life in big and small ways, illustrating the endless, repetitive march of history, both in a societal sense and within a family. One small moment I remember is the Tsai women pondering a lifetime with their husbands: “That he remained, in some way, unknown made the thought of a lifetime together bearable.” (the mother Li Min in 1947) and “Maybe what made the years bearable was to let all those bad feelings slip beneath the surface unacknowledged.” (the narrator several decades later). The ending is perfect and it echoes back to prior points of the book, both the narrator’s birth in the beginning and her discovery of how little she knows about the events surrounding her birth. As the narrator grows and fills in the gaps of her knowledge, she learns that life isn’t simple and neither are the choices that people make. Life moves on and complex lives are simplified for the history books and museums, but the past is never “dead, gone, irrelevant.”

I gave my respects to the widow, beaten the night that my motherhood gone into labor with me–neither woman aware of the other or how their fates were tied, however tenuously. Maybe this is what it meant to be a citizen of a place—bonded to each other by the histories thrust upon us.

The setting and the characters are what makes Green Island special. It was terrifying how trouble followed the narrator over the Pacific Ocean. (See: The assassination of Taiwanese writer Henry Liu). This is a book you can read again and again over a lifetime and get something different from it each time. I learned so much from this book, and it has caused me to seek out further information on Taiwan’s history and the surrounding conflicts briefly mentioned in the text. I’ve read enough about war to see that while the objective facts of these conflicts are different, the impact on people is universally similar. All the books I am about to list are all very different, but they share similar themes: All the Light We Cannot See (especially the last chapter), The Buried Giant, The Constellation of Vital Phenomena|, And After Many Days, and The Nightingale.

The world does not happen the way we lay it out on paper: one event after another, one word following the next like a trail of ants. The rocks in the field do not preclude the flowing river fifty miles away; a man sneezes and at the exact same time a woman washes her feet, a child trips and blood oozes from the broken skin, a dog nips at a flea on its hindquarter, and a bird swallows a beetle. Past, present, and future too swirl together, distinguishable but not delineated by any sort of grammar beyond the one our hearts impose.

* What better way to follow that last quote than with a timeline! 😉 The BBC has a better version, but for my purposes here is the simplistic timeline of a complex situation:
1927-1949/1950 – Period of Chinese Civil War in the Republic of China (ROC) between the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Communist Party of China (CPC).
1945 – Japan forced to return control of Taiwan to ROC as part of post-World War II settlement.
1947The 228 Massacre: Discontent with KMT rule in Taiwan boils over after police violently handle a contraband cigarette vendor and kill an innocent bystander. The citizens riot and and the government declares martial law. Over 10,000 people are killed and even more disappear without a trace.
1949 – KMT government and refugees flee to Taiwan after losing the civil war. The war resulted in two de facto states, the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland. The White Terror period in Taiwan begins with KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek’s reign and continues for almost forty years. Over 140,000 Taiwanese “political dissidents” are imprisoned and thousands are executed.
1971 – UN recognizes PRC as the sole government of China, which a huge blow to the ROC.
1979 – The United States formally recognizes the PRC and severs relations with Taiwan.
1987 – Martial law ends (see 1949). This was the longest period of martial law recorded at the time it was abolished.
1996 – First democratic presidential election in Taiwan.
2000 – 50 Years of KMT rule ends with the election of a Democratic Progressive Party candidate for president.
Present – Taiwan’s political status still controversial. PRC claims Taiwan and ROC still claims mainland China. The numbers of those affected listed above are also in contention.


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