There’s a great deal of in-betweenness about The Fortunes, the new novel from Peter Ho Davies. It’s actually four separate stories, though each is in itself a facet of the one greater experience: that of being Chinese in America. Though I suspect the author would quite firmly place this work in the fiction bracket, there is a tantalising frisson of the real about it. It’s not quite narrative non-fiction, though the people and places, and I would guess a great deal of the content rises straight from the pages of history.
Just in case that sound a bit lukewarm and you’re wavering, let me add that it’s gripping and sad and honest and immensely enjoyable.
Above anything else it’s a book about belonging. It’s so fundamental to our nature as humans to want to belong – whether we recognise it or not – that it shapes us in every way imaginable. Peter Ho Davies tackles not only the longing but also the being that’s implicit in that state. With Ah Ling, the mixed-race ‘white ghost’ sent to California to make his way in the 1860’s and Anna May Wong, the first Chinese film star in Hollywood, Peter Ho Davies shows us not only the barriers but also the double standards which control the level of integration they are subject to – and ultimately how belittling a process it is. In Vincent Chin’s story we see the forces of longing and being brought brutally to a head as he is killed by two Detroit Auto Workers who think he’s Japanese. Vincent, it transpires, was the most American of Chinese boys.
In the last movement of this quartet we come right up to date as a half-Chinese writer visits China for the first time to adopt a baby girl. Where Peter Ho Davies has been aware of the emotional ebb and flow of his characters in the preceding pieces, here is where that sense of in-betweenness feels closest to the skin. There are truths here that we can all recognise, seemingly harmful assumptions that we have likely made ourselves at some point. It’s a very emotional finish.
I think it would be fair to say there is a low simmer of resentment flavouring each of the lives portrayed between these covers, the injustice of wilful exclusion never far from the surface. But sometimes to belong is to become nothing more than a face in the crowd, indistinguishable from the mass, and sometimes, being invisible is as bad as being excluded. The enduring optimism that underpins these lives akin to square pegs in round holes is what makes them so malleable, so adaptable to each niche they find themselves in.
It’s quite a book. What Peter Ho Davies gives us here is a skilfully woven and emotionally resonant view of what it is to always be on the outside. Put it on your To-Be-Read list.
The Fortunes is published by Sceptre on 25th August 2016 ISBN:9780340980231
You can find Peter Ho Davies at his website, www.peterhodavies.com
My thanks to Nikki Barrow at Hodder for allowing me to review this book.