Fiona Sze-Lorrain, already an accomplished poet, translator, and zheng harpist, now has a debut novel, Dear Chrysanthemums: A Novel in Stories. What at first seem like stand-alone stories of generations of women searching for a sense of belonging in a new setting, be that in China, Singapore, France, or the United States have characters that overlap or a small detail like a song or a writer—which can be easy to miss—that carries over from one story to another.
Sze-Lorrain also threads these stories together through the number 6. “Six is a divine number. It means a smooth life, a perfect path.” She is being ironic: the chapters are arranged by year, ending with a 6, and correspond to some of the most turbulent years of modern Chinese history. There’s 1946 and the Chinese civil war, 1976 and the reign of the Gang of Four, and 1966 at the start of the Cultural Revolution, to name just a few. For readers who are not familiar with these different eras in China, Sze-Lorrain provides enough—and interesting—historical context.
In the opening story, “Death at the Wukang Mansion”, set in Shanghai in 1966, Ling is a dancer who is sent to a famous apartment building, the Wukang Mansion, the Hungarian architect Laszló Hudec’s former Normandie Apartments.
It featured the architectural style of the French Renaissance. In the shape of a battleship of the Normandie class during the first World War—this was probably how its actual name came about—the Wukang Mansions could be seen right down the ends of the pair of intersecting streets, towering at a height of thirty meters over an area of more than nine thousand square meters, with balconies on both sides of its wedge and an open-air compound at the top.
People are sent to the building for punishment involving a contrived crime, and many leave in coffins. Ling is worried the same fate awaits her. During the Republican period, this building was home to Chinese film stars and after World War II it was purchased by the daughter of Soong Ai-ling and H.H. Kung. The Soong family connects this story with the next one, “Cooking for Madame Chiang”, set in 1946.
In this story, Old Yong is Madame Chiang’s chief housekeeper and Chang’er is hired as a maid after her Nationalist-leaning husband disappears in the war. One of Madame Chiang’s favorite dishes is salad and Old Yang asks Chang’er if she knows how to make this. A talented cook, Chang’er suggests potato salad. As in other parts of the novel, Sze-Lorrain includes interesting morsels of Old Shanghai history.
We Shanghainese are known for our unparalleled potato salad. We learned from the Russians and their original Olivier salad. Does Madame like it plain with sesame oil or with a light spicy flavor? I can sprinkle in bits and pieces of tomato, turnip, carrot, onion, ginger, cucumber … or think wedges of cooked ham. If I may, I’ll add diced apple and slices of bamboo shoots with cilantro.
Some stories are set in Paris. In “News From Saigon”, which takes place in 1995-1996, a young Vietnamese woman befriends Marguerite Duras not too long before the latter’s death. In an earlier story, a simple mention of Duras provides enough of a link to “News From Saigon” to relate one story to the other. In “The White Piano”, also set in 1996 Paris, the daughter of Chang’er, Madame Chiang’s maid, receives a mysterious delivery of a piano, addressed to her from someone in Asia.
The significance of chrysanthemums becomes more apparent in the final story, which shares the same name as the book’s title and spans 1946 to 2006. It also circles back to the introductory story of the dancer Ling at the Wukang Mansion. Dear Chrysanthemums may be short at just 160 pages, but the unique structure of connecting the stories through the many decades of modern Chinese history and some of the same characters gives it the feel of a longer novel.