With its unvarnished look at infidelity, drug addiction, war, and fractured families in mid-20th century China along with a jarringly abrupt non-linear narrative and burly eight-page character list, Eileen Chang’s final novel Little Reunions is a difficult read.
In many respects, Little Reunions can be (and often has been) read as an analogue of Chang’s own life, with the novel’s literary-minded protagonist Julie Sheng and her philandering husband Chih-yung, her opium-addicted father Ned and globetrotting mother Rachel, and crowded extended family all serving as a kind of fictional simulacra of the real thing. As Susan Sontag has observed, marriages are central material in most great novels and their stubbornly unharmonious portrayals in Little Reunions suggests a certain greatness of scale. With the Sino-Japanese War as its backdrop, the novel describes Julie’s privileged but difficult childhood in Shanghai, her student days as a teenager in wartime Hong Kong, and her life back in Shanghai during Japanese occupation.
Chang completed Little Reunions in 1976, but it would take thirty-three years for the novel to be published in its Chinese original (posthumously, since Chang died in 1995) and another nine years for it to appear in English translation.
Since the book is largely a work of fictionalized autobiography, Chang’s friend and literary executor Stephen Soong successfully urged her to defer releasing the manuscript for fear of self-inflicted wounds to her literary reputation, and over the years Chang remained undecided about the manuscript’s existence, wavering between wanting to have it destroyed and postponing any definitive decision on the matter. The issue was eventually settled by Stephen’s son, Roland, who, following his father’s death, inherited the rights to the text, but neither his father’s nor its author’s ambivalence about its fate.
In a 22 April 1976 letter to Soong, she described the novel as a story of passion, one that explores the stubborn attachment to love even after that love has flared and flamed and died out. But love for whom? Julie’s fraught relationship with her liberated and strikingly modern mother disappoints; the latter is often verbally and emotionally abusive (“Oh, you just live to bring disasters! People like you should just be left alone to die!”) and physically absent for long stretches while abroad in India, British Malaya, and Europe.
Similarly, Julie’s husband cheats and lies and refuses to relinquish his circle of wives and female lovers, while his collaboration with the occupying Japanese regime sidelines him to the countryside. Inevitably, the ardor of forbidden and infrequent love yields to little reunions and with them a diminishing sense of attachment. “The people around Julie were all merely geometric points with fixed positions, but each possessing no length or breadth” writes the narrator. It is only when “everyone is gone” that Julie feels her world to be “pleasantly uncluttered.”
Or is Chang mining a time-worn love of China, one of darkening memories lived in the long and often bitter shadow cast by the Second World War? There is a thorny sense of resentment that seeps through the text in places, for example when the narrator reflects: “China can always surprise, sometimes treating the rare and exquisite with indifference.”
Little Reunions is a novel about marriage, but also one written in the United States by a naturalized Chang entangled in the predicament of post-war geopolitical allegiances. How strange that the word “naturalization” has come to describe a deracinating process that often requires a certain degree of self-renunciation.
There is also a cinematic feel to the novel. With its narrative jump cuts, flashbacks, and mise-en-scène of 20th-century sights and sounds that span two continents and at least twice as many decades, one might be forgiven for taking Chang’s novel as a sweeping film-to-book adaptation. Admittedly, her formal experimentation likely aims to reproduce the involuntary, arbitrary, and disjointed process of remembering, but Chang’s abrupt transitions, clipped sentences, and overall non-linearity test (and eventually reward) the patient reader.
As Julie’s love affair with Chih-yung develops, there is a gradual lengthening of Chang’s paragraphs, her words blossoming with a poetic vitality that has come to define a great deal of her prose. But the spring is short-lived as Julie is suddenly struck at one point by the realization that everything comes to an end:
She didn’t look at him but smiled vaguely off into the distance over thousands of miles of rivers and mountains, where, in a few years, they would meet again under dim lamplight in a remote small town.
Beyond the formal and stylistic challenges, Little Reunions is a trying book because of the accumulated fatigue, alienation, and world-weariness that permeate the characters, each unhappy in their own way. Unflinchingly, Chang aims her spotlight on them (and herself), “even [if] the sun in this ancient story was covered in dust.”