ALEC FARMER WRITES — Home does not denote a solely physical space. It represents memories, both good and bad. Experiences with family, friends, and passing acquaintances are associated with the place these events occurred in. For this reason, locations are special to someone because of their shared history. This duality between spaces and experiences is the central focus of Cao Wenxuan’s captivating novel, Dragonfly Eyes (2021).
Cao Wenxuan is a contemporary Chinese author who is most prominently known for his children’s books. Two of Cao Wenxuan’s most regarded novels are Bronze and Sunflower (2005) and The Grass House (1997). However, his newest novel, Dragonfly Eyes, is not a typical children’s book. While the novel revolves around the familiar concept of family, Cao Wenxuan sets this story in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution – a tumultuous era in contemporary Chinese history. The Cultural Revolution and the ideas it had borne are especially challenging for the Du family to navigate.
Dragonfly Eyes follows a French woman named Océane and a Chinese man named Du Meixi who meet and start a family together in France. However, after living in France for several years, the Du family moves to Shanghai to aid their silk business. In Shanghai, Océane and Du Meixi live a prosperous life as their children start families of their own. One of their children has a granddaughter named Ah Mei, who forges a strong bond with her grandmother, Océane. However, as a mixed-race family who once operated a large silk business, the Du family becomes a target for the revolutionaries of the Cultural Revolution.
The novel focuses heavily on the beautiful and complicated relationship between Ah Mei and her grandmother. Their touching dynamic circles around how the two understand and relate to one another often without either of them having to say a word. However, the outside circumstances do complicate Ah Mei and Océane’s relationship. Océane’s home is constantly raided for fear that she is a foreign spy. Ah Mei is ridiculed by her classmates and put at the mercy of the Hukou system. With these conditions, one might expect a story filled with despair, “But a different scenario was playing out – one in which an adult and a child played,” a simple line that illuminates the strength of the novel’s central relationship.
Another prominent feature of Dragonfly Eyes is its emphasis on place, specifically Shanghai. One needs no prior knowledge of Shanghai to move through these specific spaces. The creek, Ah Mei’s school, and Océane’s home are brought up so many times throughout the novel, but new details or memories are added each time these locations appear. The small features that the novel highlights add to a beautifully rendered Shanghai as illustrated when, “Dusk fell, and darkness spread, with only the sound of water, and nothing to see but the twinkling lights on the river, Ah Mei stood there.” The result of such vivid imagery is that Ah Mei and Océane’s Shanghai is fully developed and ready to be experienced by the reader.
Helen Wang’s evocative translation captures this stunning rendition of both place and experience. Wang has worked in Sinology for most of her career and has translated several Chinese works, including Cao Wenxuan’s previous novel, Bronze and Sunflower. Helen Wang’s translations in Dragonfly Eyes paint a clear and reminiscent image of what Shanghai was like for this family and many others during the Cultural Revolution. Suzhou Creek is a location repeated several times throughout the novel. Each time this location is referenced, Helen Wang’s translation has the reader understand a new detail or emotion associated with this space. “The street lamps were already lit, their golden reflections rippling in the water. In the evening breeze, the ripples skittered, shattering the gold leaf surface of the river,” a section of Helen Wang’s exquisite translation that adds yet another facet to understanding what Shanghai means to Ah Mei.
One of the most impactful messages of Dragonfly Eyes is how a location and its history, emotions, and experiences can never be separated. A space is not cherished solely because of its geographic features. Ah Mei loves Shanghai with all her heart. This love comes not only from the city’s physicality but from the years of experiences Ah Mei had there. Ah Mei’s family events, schooling, and intimate moments have all taken place in one city.
Cao Wenxan takes the arduous task of encapsulating the emotions, people, and visuals of a location, yet he does so in an impressive manner. By focusing this novel on the relationship between a grandmother and a granddaughter and the experiences they share, Cao Wenxuan depicts the interconnectedness of space and emotion. When describing Océane’s home, the author states, “It wasn’t just a house, or just a place to live, it had so many beautiful and happy memories, and so many sad and painful memories.” Dragonfly Eyes is an amalgamation of the episodes in the life of a family growing up during a turbulent time who still managed to create a home. Whether that home is the “Blue House” or Shanghai does not matter. For Ah Mei and Océane, home is a collection of people, emotions, and experiences. However, Cao Wenxuan does give this touching collection of ideas a name, Shanghai.
New AMI book reviewer, Alec Farmer, recently graduated from LMU with a degree in Film and TV Production and a minor in Asian and Pacific Studies. He has studied contemporary Asian literature and cinema.