The Dragon Phoenix Bracelet

Written by Monica Li
Review by Richard Abbott

Monica Li has set her family saga in a tumultuous period of Chinese history: the twentieth century. During these years, the apparent stability of traditional culture was torn apart first by war with Japan, and secondly by the Maoist Cultural Revolution. The book closes with a sense of resolution, not only for family members but also with greater openness of the borders of modern China.

The bracelet mentioned in the title is a family heirloom, which becomes the subject of rivalry, greed, dispute, and ultimate reconciliation. For a considerable part of the book we lose track of its whereabouts, but its existence, and its enduring symbolic value, are present throughout. We wait a long time, though, for the fulfilment of the inscribed promise “A family in harmony will prosper in everything”.

I very much enjoyed being immersed in this part of Chinese history, and the different family members were well drawn. Technically, the book was extremely well presented. I would have enjoyed it still more if the writing had been richer and either lyrical or emotionally evocative. Instead, the narration style is quite plain. The events described, and the personal traumas of the family members, are far from being part of a children’s story. However, for much of the story I wondered if it was aimed at a Young Adult audience. Fearful things happen to almost all of the characters, but the prose remains quite cold and skims the surface of their feelings.

You have to work hard with this book to engage with the characters, but the unusual setting and storyline are worth the effort.  At less than two-hundred pages it is not a long book (perhaps a little over-priced for its length?) and I completed it during a moderate train journey – but the transformations faced by the family are huge.