The train that was delivering Junie to Trout River was just pulling out of the station and gathering speed, and already the compartment was filling up with cigarette smoke and the gregarious sound of sunflower seeds being cracked open. [opening of Swimming Back to Trout River]
Swimming Back to Trout River by Linda Rui Feng
Simon & Schuster, 2011
Fiction/Historical; 271 pgs
Source: Complimentary copy of the novel provided by the publisher via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.
Swimming Back to Trout River opens with Cassia and her five year old daughter Junie traveling to Trout River where Junie will live with her paternal grandparents. Junie settles into life there, and, when learning at age 10 that her father plans to return for her, Junie despairs at the idea of leaving her grandparents and the only home she remembers. Momo, Junie's father, dreams of the day he can reunite his family, both his daughter and estranged wife, and give his daughter a better life than she could have in China.
The author then takes the reader back in time, introducing Junie's parents, Cassia and Momo, more fully, as well as Momo's university friend Dawn. We get a glimpse into their childhoods and also how they met and what life was like for them during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, including the violence and oppression by the Red Guard, which changed all three of their lives irrevocably. They each faced hardships and heartbreak that would continue to impact them for years to come.
Dawn was the one who introduced Momo to the magic and power of music during their university years. The two had a falling out over the course their lives should take, but their love for music would stay with them always. Music is a theme that runs throughout the novel, whether it be a violin concerto or the melodic sounds of every day background noise. Cassia appears later in Momo's life, when he is working as an engineer and she a nurse. He falls for her right away, she more reluctantly. They give birth to a beautiful daughter, a daughter without legs, who they name Junie.
As Junie is being raised by her grandparents in China during the 1980's, riding on a wooden horse with wheels and ever curious about everything around her, the reader finds Dawn, Momo and Cassia in the United States, trying to make their own ways in the world. The author brings us a novel with hope at its center, amidst grief and loss, pain and suffering. The relationships between the characters as well as with themselves are central to the novel. It wasn't surprising to learn the author Linda Rui Feng is also a poet. Her writing is beautiful.
The novel got off to a slow start for me, admittedly, but I was soon lost in the lives of the characters and felt a part of their world. While Junie's story is an integral part of the novel, I was most drawn to her parents' story and that of Dawn's during the time of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. I felt for each of them at various parts in the novel, angry on their behalf and wishing and wanting more for each of them while hoping for the best--that they would find their peace. I wanted that so much for each of them. There is a twist near the end that has left me a bit unsettled. I wish the author had gone in another direction, but it is her story to tell, not mine. Overall, I found Swimming Back to Trout River a worthwhile read. If you are prone to crying like I am, have a box of tissue handy.
The air beneath Evelyn's paper mask is hot and damp, and even though a shaft of sunlight from the open barn door reveals sawdust swirling in the air, she pulls the mask up to her forehead and allows herself a breath of cool air. ~ Opening of The Memory Collectors
Atria Books, 2021
Fiction/Magical Realism; 400 pgs