Bury What We Cannot Take by Kirstin Chen published in 2018.
“The day nine-year-old San San and her twelve-year-old brother, Ah Liam, discover their grandmother taking a hammer to a framed portrait of Chairman Mao is the day that forever changes their lives. To prove his loyalty to the Party, Ah Liam reports his grandmother to the authorities. But his belief in doing the right thing sets in motion a terrible chain of events. Now they must flee their home on Drum Wave Islet, which sits just a few hundred meters across the channel from mainland China. But when their mother goes to procure visas for safe passage to Hong Kong, the government will only issue them on the condition that she leave behind one of her children as proof of the family’s intention to return.”
Even though exam season is right around the corner, I’m still staying up until 1 in the morning reading my books.
Bury What We Cannot Take takes place in 1950’s Communist China, following the mother Seok Koon, her two children Ah Liam & San San, and mother-in-law Bee Kim live in Drum Wave Islet, a small island north of Hong Kong. In an emotional and desperate state, Bee Kim takes a hammer to a framed portrait of Chairman Mao, a very serious offence to the Party. Her grandchildren witness this, and Ah Liam, brainwashed to follow the communist leaders, believes the right thing to do is report her. This ruins Seok Koon’s plan to move her family to Hong Kong and be reunited with her husband, since even with extravagant bribes they are only granted 3 exit permits, and she is forced to leave one of her children behind. She chooses to leave San San, unknowing to the fact that it is Ah Liam’s fault they are in this situation. Separated both by distance and ideals, Seok Koon becomes desperate to be reunited with her daughter, while nine-year-old San San attempts to survive on her own while also trying to find a way to Hong Kong.
Chen jumps right into the story wasting no time with mindless details and pointless imagery and immediately introducing the scene of San San and Ah Liam spying on their grandmother committing a crime against the Party. I don’t like it when novels dawdle about at the beginning, so this was well appreciated. I mean, I understand introductions are hard, but I don’t think it’s necessary to spend 20 pages describing a house or a random minor character. Another aspect on the forefront for me is its title, only of the very things that drew me towards this novel in the first place (that and the beautiful cover art). Bury What We Cannot Take has an air of adventure, mystery and danger, causing the reader to wonder who or what they’re running from. Although after reading the story, since we find out that it’s not a matter of what they left behind, but rather who.
As I mentioned earlier, Ah Liam was the one who turned in his grandmother in order to stay loyal to the Party. This is not revealed until they are in Hong Kong when Ah Liam announces it proudly. They are (obviously) angry at him, but this anger is very brief. It’s never really brought up again, and Bee Kim and Seok Koon even still refer fondly to Ah Liam later in the story. I guess this could be to show their unconditional love towards their family, but c’mon, your own grandson ratted you out to communist leaders and basically forced them to abandon little San San. If it were me, even if it were my son/grandson, I think I’d remain quite bitter towards him. Also, the narrative of the novel is quite equally disrupted in the beginning, yet close to the end it focuses more on San San, so we get even less about Ah Liam.
You may also be wondering what’s going on with Seok Koon’s husband in Hong Kong, Ah Zhai, and the reason for this is because he doesn’t really warrant mentioning. They meet up with him, and Seok Koon discovers he has a mistress that he has fallen in love with. Besides this bit of juicy information, there’s really nothing else going on with him; he’s pretty one-dimensional in my eyes and wasn’t really worth more than a few sentences of description.
Based on the plot summary and the cover art, one would think there would be a considerable amount of time on some sort of ship, perhaps being smuggled on the way to Hong Kong. This idea is explored…kind of. Most of San San’s story takes place on a dock waiting for a cargo ship to arrive. When she finally finds a ship, this journey is completely skipped over. We suddenly go from her bribing the cooks to hid her in the storage room, and suddenly she’s arrived in Hong Kong, dishevelled and beaten down. We then get about a paragraph or so summary of her time on the ship and a few pages later, the book is done. Just like that. I would have loved to have followed San San as she stowed away on a cargo ship headed to Hong Kong (I mean, how exciting does that sound?). The book isn’t that long to begin with (286 pages) so it could have afforded another good 150 or so pages documenting San San’s journey. The actual ending, in general, is very abrupt and doesn’t really satisfy a lot of plot holes.
Overall, this book confused me. There are a lot of aspects of it I quite liked, like San San’s character and Chen’s writing style, but upon further thought, there are some technical parts that just don’t sit right with me. I don’t know much about the history of communist China, but it appeared to be accurate to what I do know. If you have the chance to pick up this book, feel free to enjoy some creative historical fiction. I have nothing against this book, it just didn’t wow me.