It was a short, sudden scream that changed everything -- more of a cry caught in the throat, which you might hear from an animal in pain
Nine-year old Emma and her sister, fourteen-year old Joan, live a pretty luxurious life in Hong Kong, until war intrudes. With Japan invading Hong Kong and snatching it away from Britain, Emma and her family move to the Portuguese colony Macao, where Emma meets her best friend, and Joan tries to drown herself in cooking to escape from a morale-shattering incident that happened just before they left. After the war, however, their mom sends Joan out on countless dates so that Joan can get married but either Joan is the unluckiest girl in the world or fate has different plans for her.
Spanning two-and-a-half decades, Night of Many Dreams is a coming of age story, focusing mostly on Emma and Joan, but also sometimes on their mother, Kum Ling, and their aunt, Go. Sisters Emma and Joan grow up in a traditional Chinese household, with their expected roles already carved out for them. Pretty Joan loved acting and spent much of her time trying to imitate other actresses. Studies and books never fascinated her and everyone expected her to get married soon and settle into a life of afternoon teas and mahjong games. Emma, on the other hand, is never described as being pretty but her intelligence is considered her strong suit. When World War 2 invades their safe cocoon, their father is forced to send out Joan to collect money from people who owe him, a job traditionally passed on to a son, but Joan takes it up as she is the elder sibling. For a fourteen year old, she shows a lot of maturity and composure when faced with red-faced angry men trying to get out of having to pay.
There really isn't a specific plot to Night of Many Dreams, as is the norm with some coming-of-age books. It is about these four women and their relationships with each other. Emma really just wants to travel the world and when she eventually manages to go to San Francisco, she is thrilled. Joan follows several different passions - acting, cooking, helping at her aunt's business part-time. But her life doesn't go smoothly - the men she falls for appear to be spineless. Go and Kum Ling are cousins and have a shared history of a tragedy in their past. Kum Ling is facing the pressures of the society and wants her daughters to get married, but a lot doesn't work out the way she wished. Go provides Kum Ling the voice of reasoning most of the time, not that Kum Ling wants to hear, but it gives the girls some more freedom.
I found Night of Many Dreams to be very readable and fast-paced. It was always wonderful to pick this book up and resume reading their stories. But I wasn't a fan of the chronology or the narration. The story is told linearly, but occasionally, years would have passed between chapters. That jumping narration made me wonder about what some characters were thinking when their lives took a certain course. Consecutive chapters also had different narrators - this got me get very invested in a character and then suddenly the voice changed. I felt that this type of narration kept me from actually connecting with any of the characters.
It also bothered me a lot to see a string a bad news follow these women. Sure, life happens, some people have it worse than others, but some of the events in this book felt more manipulative than genuine, almost as if to meet some goal. Somehow, in the end, they all ended up where they started, with each having lost something and gained something else. Although I enjoyed reading this book for its pacing and my curiosity, I felt let down by the narration and poor execution.
I am however looking forward to reading this author's other books, especially The Samurai's Garden and Women of the Silk. Hopefully I may have better success with them.
This book is from my personal library.
Armchair reading in Hong Kong