Four Treasures of the Sky

Written by Jenny Tinghui Zhang
Review by Larry Zuckerman

Despite being named for a tragic heroine of legend, Daiyu has a happy childhood in 1880s China. Growing up in a fishing village, she has firm but doting parents, who teach her to love nature and respect others. But these are dangerous times, and one day, her parents flee without warning, leaving Daiyu in her grandmother’s care. Soldiers come looking for the fugitives, which bewilders Daiyu; what could her parents have done wrong? And soon, it’s too dangerous for her to remain in the village, whereupon she’s sent to fend for herself in a seaport, where she’s kidnapped and shipped to a San Francisco brothel.

To survive this ordeal and those that follow, Daiyu retreats within her tragic alter ego. To be precise, she literally and figuratively swallows her original self and holds her inside. What a compelling metaphor, an attempted antidote to the bitterness that life forces down her throat. But the alter ego also represents the identity that Daiyu may never show anyone, for fear of exposure and punishment. As a result, she won’t let herself trust or love; dreadful as her physical sufferings are, the emotional deprivation is worse.

Zhang’s beautiful, limpid prose penetrates surfaces to illuminate the shadows or currents beneath without self-consciousness, the mark of excellent literary fiction. The author intends to redeem the largely forgotten history of American bigotry and violence against the Chinese, and in that, she performs a great service. But if you read this brilliant, disturbing novel, be prepared to see humans at their worst: All the white characters are racist, and few of the Chinese have much to recommend them, either. Yet Daiyu’s constant struggle over whether to live fully, and how, prevents Four Treasures of the Sky from becoming a polemic or a tract.

This is an important book.