SARAH LOHMANN WRITES — Chunyu’s life flows like water. She fits herself expertly into a shape demanded by her circumstances. In Zhang Ling’s tenth novel, Where Waters Meet (2023), people, especially women, are asked by the often harsh world to take the form of the formless, to fill their allotted spaces at any cost.
Released on May 1st, this is Ling’s first English-language novel. Where Waters Meet, through a combination of detailed explorations and reexaminations of memory, describes a daughter discovering the intricacies of her mother’s past. Spanning seven decades, the story is steeped in cultural and personal histories. Ling expertly delivers this tale, investigating the relationship between the water we are asked to be and the blood that we indeed are.
Ling’s writing has many voices, but the most resounding are those of Yuan Feng (later Phoenix) and her mother, Chunyu (later Rain). Their voices prove potent by coming through loudly despite previously being anything but. Though many were forced into silence, few were made to be as quiet as the women from stories like these. Zhang explains that the inspiration came from her work as a clinical audiologist with veterans and refugees, along with the stories of women from her mother’s family who have “endured unspeakable suffering through the wars and social turmoil that transpires in the modern history of China.” She continues: “They remind me of water which moulds itself to the shape of the riverbed it flows into, however rough the terrain, silently adapting and sustaining.”
And they do. Without such skill, surviving would have proven impossible. Living is more than surviving. The novel repeatedly returns to the touchstone concept of “outliving.” One must outlive their dissenters, abusers, and traumas. One must live more than those things, or take them down. That idea is passed to Chunyu from her mother and, in uncovering her story, from Chunyu to Phoenix. It carries through them like blood—blood as legacy and currency, both paying for the future. These two vital liquids are set in opposition throughout; where one may be expected, another is found, but often, they are considered one and the same.
Where Waters Meet is a must-read for anyone looking for a heart-wrenching and profoundly provocative examination of the emotional turmoil undergone by people who are most often pushed to society’s darkest corners. Women, their children, and those who slip through the cracks: their stories are often told by what remains unspoken. Between glances, bandages, and outstretched hands, Where Waters Meet is a unique look into human courage and perseverance, carrying stories that should be known to everyone willing to read them.
Sarah Lohmann graduated from Knox College with a BA in Creative Writing and Asian Studies. She focused her research on film, translation, and literature.
Edited by book review editor-in-chief Ella Kelleher.