Top positive review
Masterfully written, emotionally devastating, easily Yang's best work.
Reviewed in the United States on September 22, 2013
I finished the second book this morning and I am still an emotional wreck. Yang has officially passed into another plane of storytelling. Those who know his work well are used to Yang's subtle approach to difficult topics like radical forgiveness, cultural identity and cultural shame, and even social Darwinism, eugenics, and child abuse, all with a wry sense of humor and empathy. His work also often reflects the ways in which ordinary people grapple with and through faith in the midst of personal crisis. "Boxers" and "Saints" are no different in one sense, but this story has a fundamental difference: the stakes are so much higher, and the outcome, potentially so much more disastrous. The characters seem trapped by decisions and consequences which, once they start rolling, spin entirely out of their control.
What Yang gives us in each book is a separate portrait of two young people from similar circumstances who take dramatically different paths to finding a coherent identity and a sense of justice. Through their interwoven stories, Yang takes each one through a series of extremely difficult questions about the origins of religious and political extremism, how even good people with noble ideas can cause unspeakable damage, the horrors of imperialism, and the ways in which the various Christian mission movements were problematically tied to the imperialists. Yang takes no sides and does not moralize about the events of the Boxer rebellion, just a profound sadness for their plight and his ever-present deep, deep empathy. And that is precisely what makes these novels so devastating.
Yang explores in gut-wrenching detail the ways in which each person's unique experiences shape the ways in which they react to political and cultural upheaval. Little Bao, the protagonist of "Boxers," suddenly feels his mostly-idyllic way of life shattered by the arrival of foreign missionaries and British troops. Vibiana, the protagonist of "Saints," is an unwanted child who lacks a even a proper name or a place in her granfather's household, and so the arrival of the "foreign devils" provides something else entirely. Both Bao and Vibiana are given an opportunity for open rebellion, but in different ways, and they each follow those convictions down to their explosive conclusion.
For those who love Yang's incorporation of folklore and imagination into a real-life landscape, these books are a feast. He uses a rich backdrop of both Chinese opera and Christian hagiography to create a multi-textured story, just as he did with the tales of the Monkey King in "American Born Chinese."
Trust me-- just get both books. These are meant to be read as two different movements of the same work, and you will miss out on so much the counterpoint in each story if you don't. While they can probably be read in either order, definitely save the "Epilogue" in "Saints" for last.
That epilogue, however, is sure to cause what I hope will be some healthy, productive disagreement about the nature of justice and mercy, and I can't wait to see what others have to say about it.