Duncan Jepson’s debut novel, All the Flowers in Shanghai (William Morrow, 2011), seemed like a good choice. Unlike the other novels I’ve read from this era, Flowers shows the contrast between late-Qing dynasty traditions and the decadence of 1930s Shanghai.
Feng, the main character, lives in an upper-middle class family and is basically ignored by her parents and older sister. The only person who pays her attention is her botanist grandfather. Feng’s sister (simply named Sister) is groomed from an early age to marry up. But when Sister unexpectedly dies, Feng is given to the wealthy Sang family as their oldest son’s bride.
After her wedding, Feng becomes a prisoner of the Sang family and is locked inside the family compound. The glamour and glitz of 1930s Shanghai is all but lost to Feng, although she manages to go to one tea dance at the Cathay Hotel (now the Peace Hotel) before she becomes pregnant with her first child.
And that’s where the deep sadness of the book begins. Feng makes a terrible decision and then tries to redeem herself, but it’s too late. The story continues through the Great Leap Forward, a period of three terribly dark years.
Duncan Jepson has done an amazing job with his debut novel. Most Chinese novels are incredibly depressing and in this sense, he stays true to the genre. He’s definitely an author to watch.