Review: The Yellow Papers
In its uncompromising examination of the impact of historical events on individual lives, this first novel is an engrossing, emotionally charged tale of friendship, love, prejudice, betrayal and tragedy.
The Yellow Papers spans nine decades leading to China’s Cultural Revolution as it explores the experiences of enigmatic Chen Mu and his friend Edward; and Ming Li, the married woman whom Edward adores.
In 1872, seven-year-old Chen Mu is sent to America with other poor Chinese boys to learn the secrets of the West. Forced to flee nine years later, Chen Mu arrives in a burgeoning mining town in Australia and, later, at a sprawling outback station.
Chen Mu introduces his employer’s lonely grandson, Edward, to the beauty of Chinese artefacts and, while visiting Shanghai, Edward becomes besotted with the splendour of the Orient – and the exotic Ming Li.
Written with comprehensive historical insight and profound empathy for the physical and spiritual suffering of the characters, this novel lends a human face to the horror of political and social revolution.
Dominique Wilson’s depiction of racial prejudice, torture and brutality is distressing and appalling, yet they are central to the narrative and they contrast with her exquisite rendering of the love at the heart of the story.
I started this book ignorant of the historical events it depicts but finished it culturally enriched and enlightened.
Review: The Yellow Papers
The first full-length novel from short story writer Dominique Wilson is a sorrowful but captivating historical epic, and a unique view of the formation of modern China. Spanning nine decades, The Yellow Papers charts the destinies of three main characters: a lowly Chinese peasant who flees to Australia following an unsuccessful mission to obtain ‘the secrets of the West’ in the US; a wealthy Australian man obsessed with his oriental lover; and a child of China’s Cultural Revolution. Wilson’s impeccable research helps her to convey a realistic impression of some of the significant political, intellectual and social changes in China’s development, and the impact this evolution has had on Western culture, particularly Australia. While this attention to historical detail adds authenticity to the narrative, it is Wilson’s well-crafted characters and shrewd storytelling that arouse all the emotions that great tragedy is supposed to evoke. To compare The Yellow Papers to the historical sagas of the kind that consistently rise to the tops of bestseller lists may seem to trivialise the importance of its subject matter, but the book will still satisfy a readership hungry for a gripping, grandiose read.
Tuesday Morning Book Club – ABC North Queensland
04 March 2014: 9.57 AM
Presenter Michael Clarke and reviewer Sue Cole discuss The Yellow Papers:
The Yellow Papers by Dominique Wilson – Review
March 3, 2014
Dominique Wilson is an Australian author of French-Algerian origin, and her debut novel resonates with her perception of Australia’s multicultural heritage ‘from the other side’. It’s the story of Chen Mu, a fugitive from justice who finds refuge in Australia at the turn of the 20th century. While Wilson’s character suffers his share of the prevailing anti-Chinese hostility, he manages a kind of redemption in the Outback, and becomes an inspiration for an end to post-WW2 anti-Asian racism.
It’s a complex journey for this character. Aged only seven, Chen Mu leaves China in 1872 when authorities select this bright young boy to study in the US. The idea was that, having suffered an inglorious defeat in the Opium Wars, China sought to retrieve its sovereignty by modernising its weaponry with input from beyond its own borders. All goes to plan for Chen Mu until an impulsive act makes him flee and he finally ends up working on a property outside a mining town called Umberumberka, the original name of Silverton near Broken Hill, where a reservoir bears this name. Read more
Chen Mu settles on a pastoral property run by Matthew Dawson, a rich pastoralist, and ends up mentoring Dawson’s son, Edward, who goes on to become the central character in the latter part of the novel. Wilson successfully links some otherwise improbable circumstances with Chen Mu’s Confucian wisdom and Edward’s interest in Chinese antiquities, an interest which derives from a calligraphy brush rest that is the sole tangible remainder of Chen Mu’s Chinese heritage.
What separates The Yellow Papers from the usual historical saga is partly the way Wilson redefines ‘family’ to include Chen Mu, and partly the way she respects the reader’s intelligence and leaves some gaps in the 90-year chronology that can be inferred without needing to labour the point. Even so, at 348 pages, it’s quite a long novel, and some of it is quite confronting.
Edward is of an age to witness four wars, but it’s his last one, the Korean War, which finds him behind the lines and eventually a POW. Unsurprisingly, his dreadful experiences make him anti-Asian, which compromises his long-standing affection for Chen Mu and his feelings for Ming Li, the love of his life who he’d met in China during WW2, just in time to be separated as Mao Tse Tung’s Communists closed China to the world. Wilson is particularly good at rendering Edward’s confusion and guilt about reconciling his conflicting memories.
I was impressed by the uncompromising ending. The novel gathers tension towards the end, and the characters find themselves locked in a destructive pattern of relationships forged by ideology rather than human behaviour. I can’t say more without spoilers, but this is a novel that saves its biggest shock till the end. [ ANZ LitLovers ]
The Yellow Papers
Written by Janet Mawdesley
8 May 2014
Beautifully written from the first paragraph, the story of Chen Mu unfolds with all the delicacy of fine Chinese scroll work, designed to intrigue and enhance.
Starting in China in 1872 we meet Chen Mu at the tender age of 6 years old; resentful, cold, hungry and realising things are not all that well in his world.
He is chosen to leave his village to attend school and eventually travel on to America, but can’t understand why his mother would do this to him. He goes on to become a good student, finding his feet in America and developing a love of Botany, which would eventually lead him, in the most unexpected and dangerous manner, to travelling on to Australia. Read more
He finally settles in Australia befriending the lonely Edward, the six year old grandson of Matthew Dawson’s daughter, and owner of the station property where Chen Mu works and lives, when Edward and his mother leave Sydney during the bubonic plague years.
The unlikely pair build a friendship that stands the test of tragedy and time, surviving two wars and the troubles that follow.
Edward builds a career based on the knowledge gained as a child and student of Chen Mu, which eventually sees him based in Shanghai in the years before the Mao uprising; before the beginning of the Second World War and the Japanese invasion, the years of greed, decadence and mystery.
Here he meets and falls desperately in love with a Chinese businessman’s young and beautiful wife; a love that is to survive the worst horrors of a world undergoing change and rebuilding.
The story twists and winds across the pages of history bringing them alive again as Chen Mu, Edward, Ming Li and their families struggle to adapt to the changes bought about through war and deprivation.
The story is created around the basic emotions of hope, trust, love, hate and betrayal which are woven through the pages seamlessly, making a rich story richer for the telling.
Each chapter unfolds bringing with it a small segment of the whole, that once started is compelling and difficult to put down. It is beautiful, insightful, rich, thought provoking and unforgettable.
For those who have not lived through any part of this history brought alive again, enjoy the journey, the peek back to a time and place that exists no longer, through the eyes of those who lived, loved and lost. [ Blue Wolf Reviews ]
lip lit: the yellow papers
21 April 2014
Traditionally when a person dies in China, yellow or gold joss papers are burned to ensure the deceased’s safe passage into the nether world. Thirteen-year-old Chen Mu is studying in America when his mother dies in 1875, and cannot return home to perform the rite. Instead, he swaps his mourning clothes for American suits and turns his back on his homeland for good.
Dominique Wilson’s debut novel, The Yellow Papers, is a hundred-year narrative of displacement, cultural upheaval and political change, but also a story of the unlikely friendships and love that persist, even in such an unstable climate.
At seventeen, Chen Mu is bullied into committing a terrible crime because of his race and flees America aboard a ship bound for Sydney. He finds work in gold rush Australia as a gardener at a wealthy country estate, where he strikes up a friendship with the owner’s grandson, Edward. Read more
Chen Mu’s stories and his obsession with most sacred possession—a jade brush-rest—make Edward curious about his friend’s homeland. On the eve of World War Two, he takes a business trip to China and meets Ming Li, the wife of a wealthy Chinese businessman. They begin a love affair that will last the rest of their lives. Throughout the war and the rise of the Red Army and Chairman Mao, Edward and Ming Li hold tight to the memories of their first days together and try to find a place for their love in a world they no longer recognise.
While Chen Mu and Edward’s stories make up the bulk of the narrative, it is Ming Li’s that is perhaps the most moving. Though she suffers the most, she is a source of strength. Chen Mu and Edward leave their homelands but she remains through war and political upheaval. Like Chen Mu’s jade brush-rest, she is outwardly beautiful and gentle, but proves solid, overcoming great loss and changes in circumstance to move from wife to pampered mistress to independent businesswoman.
The Yellow Papers examines China’s cultural upheaval in the 20th Century from four perspectives: Chen Mu, who cannot escape his Chinese heritage, but no longer considers himself Chinese; Edward, the outsider who feels more at home in Shanghai than Sydney; Ming Li, who feels bound by her family to stay in China, but struggles to survive, and Ming Li’s grandson, Huang Ho, who considers the turmoil necessary to rebuild China.
Through these multiple voices from different generations Wilson challenges stereotypes and perceived cultural norms to remind us that national identity is not something fixed, and is always undermined by the stories it omits.
Wilson further explores China’s cultural upheaval and how this upheaval was perceived by the west through symbolic objects. The jade brush-rest represents ‘the five essential virtues: compassion, courage, justice and wisdom… And of course, modesty!’ While it acts as a symbol for each throughout the narrative, it is also an artefact of the traditional Chinese culture that so values these virtues, and its movement through the story charts changing perceptions towards that culture: something practised, then something cherished by those who do not fully understand it and finally something to be destroyed by those who reject it.
The yellow of the joss papers, too, appears throughout the story. Chen Mu, who cannot burn the papers for his mother later delivers yellow wartime telegrams in Australia, informing families of the death of their sons and husbands. Hung Ho, though determined to fight in the Red Army, is named for China’s Yellow River. In the aftermath of war in a dingy hotel room with an American sailor, Ming Li’s skin has a ‘jaundiced glow’. The characters’ link with China and their heritage is something they carry, willing or not, and their relationship with this heritage is something they must continue to negotiate throughout their lives.
The Yellow Papers is a moving read with broad scope. Wilson’s characters, particularly Chen Mu and Ming Li, are rounded and sympathetic, allowing Wilson to frame large and often abstract ideas of cultural identity, unrest and displacement through individual and personal stories. It’s a work that reminds us that culture is about people and that ideology affects the individual. [ Lip Magazine ]
Review: The Yellow Papers by Dominique Wilson
6 April 2014
The Yellow Papers is one of those books that forces the reader to look at concepts, such as cultures, philosophies and relationships, from different perspectives, leaving the reader the richer for it. In particular, it examines the challenges of being a Chinese immigrant in Australia, an aspect later contrasted with the challenges a white Australian experiences in Asia, both during and post-war. Read more
Chen Mu discovers two things when he is sent to America to study in 1872 – an enduring love of education and the lingering pain of racism. The former burns into his mind, is temporarily set aside when survival instincts rule, and is later restored; the latter follows him from America to outback Australia, until he finds work on a rich pastoralist’s property, and feels a sense of acceptance and belonging.
Years later, he befriends the young son of his boss, Edward, and instills in him a love of Chinese antiquities and wisdom; this education and interest follows Edward through his life, into Shanghai and the arms of a beautiful married woman, into war zones that scar and torment, and into a new period of Chinese politics that seems to go against the essence of all Edward has come to love. Edward’s wartime experiences lead him to reject Chen Mu’s friendship, despite knowing that it is hardly fair to blame Chen Mu for the atrocities committed against him. In his tormented mind, Chen Mu is, like him, a victim of war, rational or not.
Themes of friendship, love, redemption and values are underscored by deeper themes of racism, propaganda, politics and war in this multi-layered and insightful novel. Different characters, including Ming Li’s troubled grandson Huang Ho, highlight these themes, varying in intensity. The three main characters – Chen Mu, Edward and Huang Ho – each experience forms of racism and the impact is, particularly for the latter two, immense and profound. Each one also emerges from political or war environments bearing different scars, and greater or lesser mental strength. For example, Edward returns from Asia with post-traumatic stress; the flashbacks and hyper vigilance blur his capacity to differentiate between friend and foe, and at this point, all Asians, even his lifelong friend and mentor Chen Mu are to be avoided, feared and hated. Huang Ho, indoctrinated in Mao Tse Tsung’s beliefs, turns on his grandmother, believing her to be a “bad element”. Chen Mu carries guilt all his life. Interestingly, the female viewpoints are mostly silent on these matters (Ming Li’s voice offers some insight), and generally take on supporting roles.
The Yellow Papers is not flawless, but the research is impeccable and the overall writing solid. What stood out for me, and still does a week after reading it, is the way Wilson conveys the pain of war and racism – it’s honest, emotive, vivid and at times, raw. A recommended read for anyone who likes historical fiction and has a tendency to think over the issues raised for some time afterwards. A big thumbs up from me.
Goodreads Readers’ Reviews
Bob Dawson – 25 March 2014:
This is a ripping tale! It tells the story of four main characters that are linked by the history of China and Australia from late 19th century up to the 1960s, and how their lives are affected by the various events and wars of that time. It’s really well written, a real page turner, and pretty confronting at times, but it also makes you think. It’s the sort of book that you keep thinking about, long after you’ve finished it. A great good read!
Tina – 10 March 2014:
How does an author capture the essence of all that war encapsulates? The anger, hatred, cruelty, politics,poverty, wastefulness….Ms. Wilson does all of this vividly by recounting the story of three families that have become intertwined. By chronicling the experiences of the diverse and multi-faceted characters, the reader feels the effects of war, poverty and racism.
It begins with Chen Mu, a poor boy living in China. His mom is dying and sends him away to be schooled in Connecticut. He is like a fish out of water and is in awe of the wonder of education yet experiences blatant racism. A major event will change his path forever. He eventually finds a place to call home and this is where he leaves his mark in life. The special gift that was given to him by his teacher plays a major role in the book. It is a beautiful symbol of love and potential. Read more
The Dawson Family is very well off and their son, Edward is greatly influenced by Chen Mu.
Ming Li is a married woman living in Shanghai, but she falls in love with another man. How does she keep her dignity and respect in a culture that considers this forbidden love? World War 2 crashes into the story and the families struggle to keep together.
The story increases in intensity at a steady clip until it reaches a crescendo at the surprising ending. It was a very exciting read and there were many philosophical aspects to be considered. “The Yellow Papers” forces the reader to regard war from both sides. There are always at least two points of view and which side is to blame for war is not simplistic. The fact is, most citizens involved in strife still go through normal everyday activities and want nothing but the best for their families…specifically , peace.
If you would like to read a book that is vast in its scope, makes you think , has adventure, love, mystery…then you will love “The Yellow Papers.” It was a thrill to receive “The Yellow Papers” as a Goodreads giveaway.
Jessica Bryan – 1 March 2014:
I hadn’t heard of this writer, but bought the book yesterday because it seemed interesting. I started reading that afternoon and finished it today – I loved it! I even nearly cried at the end, and I’m not one to cry. A really interesting saga.