Pairings of fiction and non-fiction books

So, I initially wanted to participate in this as part of non-fiction November, but life happened – five months later, here I am! I really enjoyed reading other readers’ pairings last year, and I love the concept.

Meng Jing, ‘Little Gods’ and Mei Fong, ‘One Child’

Mei Fong’s One Child – subtitled ‘The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment’ blew me away. Mei Fong offers a nuanced and striking examination of the (in)famous one-child policy in China, the world’s largest experiment in social engineering. She dissects the long-reaching, and sometimes surprising, human impact of this policy and how it has shaped families and relationships for generations to come. And the fact that Meng Jin’s protagonist of Little Gods, Liya, is an only child – though not as a direct result of the one-child policy – shapes her life and the way she connects with her heritage. Having been raised in the U.S., Liya returns to China after the death of her mother, anxious to trace the fragile threads of her family history and with no known living relatives. In doing so, she weaves through and dissects contemporary Chinese history in a poetic, insightful and moving way. Both are must-reads for anyone with an interest in modern China.

Lauren Oyler, ‘Fake Accounts’ and Jia Tolentino, ‘Trick Mirror’

Now, I wouldn’t usually give a 3-star read more airtime than what it took to read and review. But Fake Accounts is hot off the press and has drawn plenty of praise, and just because it did dazzle me doesn’t mean it doesn’t have something to say. It’s a fictional mediation, via our unnamed protagonist, on the lives we construct for ourselves online, the nature of selfhood and of performance and power, from a woman who’s just found out her boyfriend is secretly running a popular conspiracy theorist Instagram account. Jia Tolentino’s incredibly articulate essay collection Trick Mirror addresses many of these same themes – in one memorable chapter ‘Always Be Optimizing’, she explores the modern condition through the vehicle of a chopped salad – a chopped salad the embodiment of the way that our attention can be directed away from having to focus on the consumption of nutrients and instead to the consumption of data, of content, as we answer emails or scroll Facebook or buy things on Amazon. Compelling stuff, and both searing accounts of the modern condition.

Yaa Gyasi, ‘Homegoing’ and Ta Nehisi-Coates, ‘Between the World and Me’

I feel like I have waxed lyrical about both of these before, but for good reason. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is a sweeping and devastating novel, transporting us from 18th century Ghana to just before the turn of the millennium in the United States. It charts the descendants of two sisters, one who is enslaved and brought to the U.S., the other who remains in Ghana. It’s an ambitious and moving examination of the ripple effects of history and racism. Between the World and Me (which should be required reading for the planet, as per the iconic Toni Morrison), is written as a letter Coates addresses to his son. He eloquently examines how the pernicious nature of systemic racism is woven into the fabric of American society. And while his experience as a Black man in America is different from his father’s, and different from his son’s, who has grown up under a Black president, there is a long, long way to go before Black lives in America are valued equally. If you loved Yaa Gyasi’s debut, make sure Ta Nehisi-Coates is next on your TBR.

Thanks for visiting! Are there any fiction/non-fiction pairings you would recommend?

Little Gods by Meng Jin

Book Review | Little Gods by Meng Jin

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.


Read if you enjoyed the 2006 film Summer Palace, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng for the complex mother-daughter bonds and exploration of immigrant identity.