This elegantly written and gripping book provides stunning insight into the China of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. If your knowledge of Communist China was gathered through Western news, then this book will be a revelation. If you thought life was better for many people after the People’s Revolution, you will be as disappointed as I to read about Chairman Mao’s lordly feudal lifestyle and his traditional methods of government.
Brothers is about Shento and Tan, half-brothers sharing a father but not a lifestyle. It follows them from the Cultural Revolution until the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Also linking them is the love story between each brother and Sumi, the orphan who becomes a national literary star.
Tan is the adored son of one of Mao’s favourites. He and his family live as part of the Chairman’s extended family in glorious feudal comfort in Beijing. Shento is the bastard, rescued from a bizarre birth into a happy if poor village childhood. After a Chinese-Vietnamese border dispute, Shento’s village becomes home to the Chinese army, and he finally meets his father, the general, and works out the truth. From then on, in Shento’s mind, he and Tan’s family are linked. An attack on the village by the Vietnamese leaves Shento the sole survivor, but his appeal for help is rejected by his “family.” He is shipped off to an orphanage. This hell-hole is far removed from Tan’s palatial home, but Shento does meet Sumi, and they manage to survive.
So what happens when two brilliant minds are nurtured in such different ways? The plot weaves an intricate pattern through Tan and Shento’s lives, with rejection, Sumi’s love, and the struggle for power as strong forces in shaping the men the boys become. It is an absorbing read.