Book Review: Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

I read this book a while ago, yet was reminded again of it recently. There are a handful of books which I know have truly changed the way I write. This is one of them.

Jenny Zhang’s first collection brings together seven short stories, each narrated by a young girl or woman, the daughters of Chinese immigrants to America in the 1990s. The stories are linked by recurring characters; most of the families described once shared a single room in a flophouse in New York City. The parents attempt to eke out a living by doing such things as selling umbrellas on the street, delivering restaurant food, or teaching English in an underfunded inner-city school. The children are left on their own for long periods of time while the parents work, yet parental love is never in doubt. Family love is felt fiercely, often uncomfortably so. These are often uncomfortable stories: there are scenes of devastating poverty, flashbacks to the Cultural Revolution, and sexual abuse (perpetuated by troubled children upon other children). At the same time, these stories are often uproariously funny, particularly in scatological terms. Zhang’s voice is like nothing I’ve seen before: she captures the interiority of childhood, the outsized passions and terrors and feelings in a way that I didn’t know could be done. Most of all, it’s her evocation of the passion of family bonds which stays with me. The fierceness of that first love a child feels for her parents—the first love that we ever know. The passion that parents feel for their children, and that siblings can feel for one another. In this collection, family love is often fraught with pain and burdens; it’s often suffocating, particularly between mothers and daughters. But what stays with me is how Zhang takes it for granted that familial love is worthy of depicting with such passion. In a world where pop songs and Hollywood exalt Romantic Love above all, Zhang asserts familial love with equal, unashamed ardency. Here is a little girl who jumps into a river at the prospect of being separated from her parents. Here are siblings locked in a circle of co-dependency. Here are mothers clinging tightly, physically, to their children at night. It’s not all what would be deemed “healthy.” But it’s real. Zhang brings to life an immigrant story which is worlds away from the one I know. She does remarkable things with narration and voice. But the biggest lesson she gave to me as a writer was this: that familial love is worthy of serious, passionate writing.  


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