Elderly Shanghai neighbor Zhu Wen thinks she’s seeing ghosts. It’s been over fifteen years since her next door neighbors left their traditional Shanghai longtang apartment and asked Zhu Wen to watch over their unit. The neighbors include Su Lan, a young physicist, and her toddler daughter, Liya. There is also Su Lan’s physician husband, Li Yongzong, who disappeared after Liya was born in Beijing on June 4, 1989. Still, when Su Lan leaves Shanghai in the early 1990s with Liya, she believes Yongzong is still alive and may someday return to their Shanghai apartment.
As it turns out, Zhu Wen is not seeing ghosts. Her husband had died years ago and she often feels his presence in their small longtang apartment. But the images of Su Lan and Li Yongzong are actually real. Only it isn’t Su Lan that Zhu Wen sees, but seventeen year-old Liya, visiting China for the first time since she left as a toddler.
Meng Jin’s debut novel Little Gods is a haunting story told from the perspectives of the neighbor Zhu Wen, Liya, and Yongzong as a reinvented man in Beijing two decades after Tiananmen. Despite being marketed as
a lyrical and thought-provoking novel that explores the complex web of grief, memory, time, physics, history, and selfhood in the immigrant experience, and the complicated bond between daughters and mothers…
the book seems more of an examination of the hope and opportunity in the 1980s before Tiananmen, and the rise of the generational gaps in rural families during this time.
Su Lan is born to poor Zhejiang farmers at the end of the Great Leap Forward. Her father perishes from the famine, so when Su Lan comes of age her mother expects her to remain in the village to help with the farm work. After the university entrance exams (gaokao) are reinstated in 1977, Su Lan thinks of nothing but escaping the village and her mother. Su Lan studies tirelessly for her gaokao and scores top in her high school class. At Beijing University she studies physics, which all but guarantees her chances for post-graduate study in the US. But as she tells her neighbor, Zhu Wen, she can never truly escape her past:
For years I haven’t seen my mother, I don’t even know if she’s alive or dead. And yet, she’s still here, her spirit, her ghost, she follows me wherever I go, even into my mind and thoughts. I think I am alone, and then the room fills with shadows: my mother, my waipo, my tai-waipo—I can see her limp body, calling out from her deathbed. My father too, sometimes, and other men I know only from names carved on stones. They all watch me, closely, waiting to laugh in my face.
Su Lan marries her cosmopolitan high school classmate, Li Yongzong, and settles in Shanghai, where Yongzong had studied medicine. She is in her eighth month of pregnancy in May 1989 when Yongzong is scheduled to attend a conference in Beijing. She begs him to stay in Shanghai because of the student protests, but he supports the movement and is determined to go to Beijing. They argue about it; Su Lan doesn’t see how democracy will ever work in China. Instead, she thinks of the US, where she will find nothing to remind her of her upbringing in the village.
We read about their arguments through the viewpoint of their neighbor Zhu Wen, who sees Yongzong leave with his suitcase. Even though Su Lan doesn’t agree, she follows right behind him and it’s in the capital where she goes into labor and delivers Liya on the fateful day of June 4, 1989. Yongzong isn’t allowed in the delivery room. Just after Liya is born, Su Lan learns that Yongzong has disappeared. Su Lan never sees him again.
She returns to Shanghai with baby Liya and receives invaluable childcare help from her neighbor, Zhu Wen, while she teaches physics. When Liya is a few years old, Su Lan takes her to the US. Fifteen years later, Su Lan unexpectedly dies. Liya returns to China with Su Lan’s ashes and tries to find her father.
Zhu Wen is still in the longtang apartment, holding out against the government’s plan to demolish the building. Liya’s return is the immigrant experience of the story, but in reverse. Instead of presenting Liya’s adjustment in the US as a new immigrant, Meng Jin shows many of the emotions that arise for children of immigrants when they return to their parents’ birth country as adults.
Besides the complex human relationships, the story includes other parts that lack neat conclusions. The subject of physics—especially the concepts of time and motion—gives the reader much to think about, even after the story concludes. When Su Lan is in the maternity ward just after delivering Liya, she asks the nurse on duty if she believes in time. The nurse asks for clarification. Su Lan repeats the question and asks the nurse if she believes “that the past is gone and the future does not yet exist.”
For Su Lan and her family, one can only wonder.