Chloe Gong sounds more like a character in a young adult novel than the author of one. A Shanghai-born, New Zealand-raised UPenn senior double-majoring English and international relations lands a book deal with one of the most reputable publishers of children’s books and publishes it to considerable (and deserved) critical acclaim.
But Gong is very real. Her debut novel, These Violent Delights, a 1920s Shanghai take on Romeo and Juliet, belies her age. The story is well-developed and the Shanghai setting lends itself well to the gang warfare and treacherous family relations of the classic tale.
Juliette Cai is the eighteen-year-old heiress of the Scarlet Gang and former girlfriend of a Roma Montagov, the nineteen year-old heir of the rival gang, the White Flowers. Four years earlier, Juliette’s family sent her to New York after they discovered her relationship with Roma. Blood spilled on both sides, and Juliette and Roma each suffered family loss. Four years on, a toughened Juliette returns to Shanghai to learn the family business.
It was Lady Cai who had convinced her husband that a daughter would be far more capable of leading the Scarlet Gang next, rather than a male relative. So Juliette had been given the crown, and Lord Cai expected the gang to bend at the knee when Juliette became the head one day—out of expectation, out of blood loyalty.
Gong wrote These Violent Delights pre-pandemic and deadly contagion and the search for a vaccine that has become central to our lives. Yet in Gong’s prescient addition to the Shakespearean outline, a mysterious virus threatens to destroy Shanghai’s vulnerable population. Shortly after contracting the virus—often dock workers by the Huangpu River—victims would tear at their throats, unable to breathe. Perhaps in echo of the previous SARS epidemic rather than foreshadowing the coronavirus, quarantine and contact tracing also make their appearance as Juliette shows her concern when some of her staff fall victim to the virus.
It’s here, and it could be a viral contagion. We need to ask the other maids who were in contact with the victims to remain in their room for a few days.
A mysterious person who goes by the name Larkspur seems to be both developing a vaccine and unleashing an actual monster that releases the contagion. Juliette and Roma each control different parts of Shanghai and learn to put their differences aside to combat the virus and the monster together.
The monster is presumably the reason why the book is classified as “fantasy”, but it arguably also acts as a metaphor for the dire poverty and hopelessness that plagued much of Shanghai’s population in the 1920s. Gong adds commentary throughout the book about the ills of colonialism in the city.
They say Shanghai stands tall like an emperor’s ugly daughter, its streets sprawling in a manner that only the limbs of a snarling princess could manage. It was not born this way. It used to be beautiful. They used to croon over it, examining the lines of its body and humming beneath their breath, nodding and deciding that it was well suited for children. Then this city mutilated itself with a wide, wide grin.
That there is to be an as yet-untitled-sequel telegraphs that Gong hasn’t, unlike Shakespeare, killed her protagonists off. Gong concludes the book with “To Be Continued…”. There’s little doubt readers will be eager to learn what will happen with Juliette and Roma, what was in that mysterious letter at the end of the story, and will there be another contagion. But Gong has to graduate first.