The Many Daughters of Afong Moy

Written by Jamie Ford
Review by Valerie Adolph

Afong Moy, usually called “the Chinese Lady,” arrives in New York in 1834. Displayed in theatres as a curiosity, she’s disgraced and in pain when doctors remove the bindings on her feet. Pregnant and betrayed by the man she thought loved her, she kills him and flees to lose herself in the city. Her daughter, Lai King Moy, experiences the plague in San Francisco. To save her life, her parents use their savings to put her on a ship to China.

The story follows her descendants for generations until 2045, when Dorothy, who has inherited memories from her forebears, desperately searches for understanding of her feelings and memories. Stories of Afong’s descendants interweave throughout this imaginative and unusual novel. The writing is almost poetic, with touches of humor; the descriptions bring to life the New York stage in Victorian times, San Francisco’s burning Chinatown, and the ferry from Seattle.

But it is the suffering of these descendants of Afong that resonates, each woman in her own way trying to overcome the fragmentary memories of past generations and face her own issues as she makes a better life for those around her.

The author has taken the science of epigenesis, often seen as perhaps explaining inherited physical characteristics, and ventured to use it to interpret the progression of experiences and memories throughout generations of one family. It is an idea that creates thoughtful discussion.