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by Rosalie M. Lin
Saint Martin's , June 2024
352 pages
ISBN: 1250287383

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Rosalie M. Lin's debut novel DAUGHTER OF CALAMITY is an astonishing, exhilarating work. Lin takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of 1930s Shanghai's cabarets, diplomatic hangouts, and back alleys, distinguished by an assertive, likable narrator and a riveting story styled with magic realism. An obvious future classic, DAUGHTER OF CALAMITY has a lot to say about the fate of women who are born into "interesting times" and how they might take control of their lives.

In this historical mystery, narrator Yue Jingwen (or, as some of her Western expat acquaintances call her, Jingwen Yue or Wilma Yue) is dancer at the glamorous Paramount cabaret club. A very exclusive club, it caters to expatriate Western men with profoundly sketchy personal histories and mountains of cash. Jingwe competes with the other dangers, especially Beibei, she of the famously perfect breasts. They also tell creative stories often informed by the cultural traditions that the Westerners are doing their best to eradicate. One of those stories is about a deity called the Mother of Calamity. Jingwen really identifies with this story and character because of the central conflict in her life - her struggle with her grandmother, powerful surgeon to a dangerous criminal gang. When criminals begin mauling cabaret girls to steal features of their faces and bodies - lips and so on - and those features turn up on socialites' faces, Jingwen knows her grandmother is involved. Can she stop the violence? Can she stand up to her grandmother? As her grandmother wants to train Jingwen as her successor, if she does not accept this Calamity, what will she do with her life? How will she survive Shanghai's dangers?

Jingwen is a likable tour guide of this complicated fictional world. She's also as secretive as her grandmother. As she tells her story, she often revises the details. No Cinderella, she has a living mother, one with perhaps a greater connection to her than her grandmother, with whom she has a deeply ambivalent bond. She hobnobs with tycoons and gangsters, but her loyalties are not for sale. The magic in the story is symbolically potent and therefore believable and necessary. Especially haunting is Jingwen's memory of how her grandmother, ordered by a gangster to make his mistress loyal, replaces her heart with that of the bird of fidelity, a swan -- and then tans the swan's wings.

The novel moves at a fast pace through Jingwen's adventures, illustrating various intriguing mysteries of Shanghai, and culminates with a horrific yet inspiring resolution. If this novel is a stand-alone story, it's an epic one. If it's the start of a series, I look forward to its sequel very much.

Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, June 2024

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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