Liya is born on the last night of the infamous Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in Beijing, on June 4th, 1989. Her mother is the enigmatic and ambitious theoretical physicist Su Lan, a woman with ‘an extraordinary mind.’ Her father, Li Yongzong, vanishes into the night.
Seventeen years later, Su Lan has died, and Liya travels from America, where she has been raised, back to China. She is there in an attempt to find her father and come to understand her mother, dissecting the complicated relationship with a difficult character who she ‘never ceased to feel strongly – strongest – about’. It is in this multifaceted and multivocal novel that we experience Su Lan’s life refracted through those who knew her: Liya, her daughter, her old neighbour Zhu Wen, and the stories two of her male schoolfriends who vied for her affection.
‘What strange torture it was for Su Lan to be limited to a linear experience of time. Imagine being constricted in space, a cartoon drawn on a page. This was how Su Lan related to time: as a prisoner. She was determined to rewire her brain so it could comprehend – and eventually intuit – reality as it actually was. In this reality time was more complex than we could imagine; far from static, it might be bent and twisted and tied in knots.’
There is a brilliance in which Meng Jin enables the reader to experience Su Lan’s theoretical rendering of time through the structure of the novel. We weave back and forth from 1980’s Beijing to the 1960’s Zhejiang countryside, in the crumbling remains of famine and Maoism, with brief interludes in 1990’s America – and later, a collapsing of time and space and memory. But whilst Su Lan and Liya are immigrants to the US, it is China and Chinese geopolitics, society and history that are at the heart of this novel. Having spent time living in China, the dissection and representation of contemporary history as seen through the central character relationships and experiences was, for me, the most compelling part of this novel.
‘It was in the midst of this restlessness that the student democracy movement began. On the streets I heard impassioned speeches, beautiful and moving phrases, words put together for the purpose of motivating people to act. In the newspapers I read furious debates. My consciousness lit up.’
Su Lan’s desire was to be untethered from the past and the bounds of linear time. ‘My mother did not like to talk about the past,’ Liya tells us. ‘But there are things you know without being told, the knowledge somehow baked into the making of you.’ But a desire to shake off the shackles of history plagues Liya, even as she undertakes her pilgrimage to the land of her birth. ‘I didn’t want my feet tied up in history,’ she says. In a way, modern China is steeped in history and tradition – and yet the relentless pursuit of progress lends itself to an erasure of history. When Liya traces her roots back to a Beijing address from an old letter, she finds the apartment of her birth marked for demolition. On returning at the end of her trip, the building is nothing but rubble.
Little Gods is an astonishing debut, with an accomplished grasp on a multi-layered form. The characters are deeply flawed and we are denied an understanding of their true motivations and an omniscient version of events. And whilst uncovering mystery is a central part of the story, it’s best not to expect a resolution – at least not in the way you might expect. But it’s absolutely a moving, complex and affecting exploration of heritage, motherhood, ambition, and history.