Swimming Back to Trout River by Linda Rui Feng

“After all, wasn’t it true that to love someone is to figure out how to tell yourself their story?”

With understated lyricism, Feng charts the experiences of a family divided by physical and emotional borders that are nevertheless united in their pursuit of a more ‘promising’ future, for themselves and each other. The narrative intertwines the trajectories of various characters: Momo and Cassia, a married couple whose relocation to America results in their estrangement, their daughter Junie, born with a congenital amputation, who is in China and being raised in a small village in the countryside by her beloved grandparents, and Dawn, a talented violinist who knew Momo in their college days. Moving from the 1960s to the 1980s, from Communist China to San Francisco, Feng spins a tale of grief and resilience. Throughout their adulthood Momo, Cassia, and Dawn experience loss, heartbreak, and time and again are forced to reconcile their own personal desires with the ones of others.

“The incandescent cocoon of music was pure rapture, and it said to him; Stay. It was a powerful beckoning, to be held in thrall, to be consumed, annihilated even.”

Classical music plays a crucial role in Dawn and Momo’s narratives and Feng beautifully articulates their relationship to it. When writing about music Feng’s writing acquires an almost luminous quality, one that—if you excuse my unintentional pun—is assured to strike a chord with her readers. I particularly liked the discussions surrounding the way other countries tend to stereotype musicians from East Asian countries (conflating attributes they associate with those countries—’conformity’, ‘rigidity’—with the music they produce).

“We learn so much more about things when they are broken or unmade, he thought.”

There is a particular episode early on in the narrative when something happens to a violin and well, I was almost in tears. In spite of these moments of tension and of Feng’s candid portrayal of the Red Guards, the narrative retains a quiet atmosphere, one that is pervaded by a sense of longing.

“He was impatient for time to pass, so that in his life, there would be less yearning and more having, less becoming and more being.”

While Feng’s writing is indisputably beautiful (I have dozens of highlights that will attest as much) I did find myself at a remove from her characters. That is not to say that I failed to sympathise with them. Their interactions—especially the ones between Junie and her grandad—could certainly be affecting. However, there was a veil between me and the characters that I was unable to penetrate. While this ‘distance’ did bring to mind the work Jhumpa Lahiri (a favourite of mine), here the slightness of the novel (just over 200 pages) meant that years of their lives would be condensed in a few pages, giving me little time to adapt to their new environments and circumstances. At times their personalities were too inscrutable so that I found myself confusing characters (especially the secondary ones that prop up in the America section of the novel). I also wanted more of Junie. She is very much sidelined for much of the narrative and I would have loved to read more about her childhood.

“In order for Junie to exist, two people had to come together during the Cultural Revolution under circumstances that one of them would later describe as inevitable, and the other, as coincidental.”

Feng’s exquisite prose and her meditation on art, culture, love, grief, exceptionalism, and dislocation result in a poignant and thought-provoking read. If you are a fan of authors such as Lahiri you should definitely not pass this up.

my rating: ★★★½

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