Bury What We Cannot Take by Kirstin Chen is a Chinese historical fiction novel that takes place shortly after Mao’s reign of the People’s Republic of China began. The book was one of my most-anticipated reads for 2018 and I’m both happy and sad to say that while it is one of the most important books that I’ve read in 2019 (so far), it was also disappointing as it fell victim to one of the most common shortcomings of a story of this calibre: rushed and convenient plot developments.
Bury What We Cannot Take revolves around a family residing on an islet off the coast of China that starts to feel the severely disturbing fetters of what the new government’s ideals represent when it comes to the common person. As they carefully try to navigate the changes in their lives, a betrayal from one of their own causes them to flee the only home they have ever known. However, the betrayal also forces them to make an incredible sacrifice, one that will follow everyone like a toxic shadow.
At its core, this book was everything that I hoped it would be. It shines a light onto a part of history that was a truly disturbing experience for so many Chinese individuals, especially those who did not agree with the beliefs of their ruling party during the era. People were subjugated and oppressed, as well as tortured and brainwashed into recognising one concept and only that concept or they had to forfeit their humanity and lives. To call something like this tragic and emotional would be an understatement, but that’s exactly what it was: an unfathomably agonising tragedy. Fear was in the air they breathed and in the relationships that once held individuals’ families and friends together. It was unavoidable, constant, and quite tangible in many forms.
Bury What We Cannot Take shows the reader the depths of these experiences and a morsel of the sorts of things that Chinese people had to face as their homeland took on a monstrous evolution, and it is presented with beautifully straightforward and unpretentious writing that is also smart and engrossing. In the opening scenes, we witness an elderly person releasing pent-up frustrations within their own home and then paying a deadly cost later. A part of me cannot imagine living in a place where your own residence can’t be a sanctuary, a safe place, for you. Even so, I also live in a country that is currently hell bent on stripping me of any form of security and rights I have merely for having brown skin and an Islamic background, so that would be somewhat of a lie. Putting my personal relatability aside, while I was watching these scenes unfold, a small pit of anxious anticipation pooled in my gut because I could see what was about to occur. As much as I wanted to stop it, or look away, I couldn’t. The writing evoked a connection between me and the family that drove me to flip forward one page after another without hesitation. This sense of needing to know what will happen next is the mark of excellent writing. Any author who can dip their fingers into the ink of my heart in such a fashion is one who truly understands the power of emotional storytelling.
In addition to the writing, the story itself is an extremely important one. I was always told that the point of learning history is for us to avoid repeating it. I’m inclined to disagree with that. History itself can also show us that this is bullshit and we are bound to repeat the same stupid mistakes on a much grander scale. For me, history is something that can show us how capable humans are at inflicting the absolute worst sorts of agony; the sadistic lining between our flesh and our soul, as it were. By the same coin, it highlights the fortitude that is hidden within each individual; strength that can be the source of us standing up to the very pain we inflict. Bury What We Cannot Take explores both of these things in a way that is genuine, which makes it that much easier to believe it actually occurred, as well as quite fantastical.
I’ve read reviews for many books similar to this one that discuss how authentic it feels to read about hateful crimes being committed, particularly during times of great conflict, yet how unrealistic the suffering that results from said crimes can be. In these instances, the suffering is described as being exaggerated or overdramatic for shock value. The novel here, as I mentioned earlier, displays the duality of these things, and in the moment even though it can feel unbelievable, I guarantee that anyone who has ever experienced an iota of oppression will understand how very real and sincere these turmoils are. That’s another quality that makes the book so fascinating and powerful.
Unfortunately, it isn’t without flaws. It is told via four POVs, or point-of-views, however one of them is significantly lacking in attention to the point where it has one of the most rushed conclusions I have ever read. The specific POV could have used far more editing as by the book’s finale, it felt so utterly pointless. I think the goal was to exhibit a sort of character growth from being naïve and easily manipulated to admitting and facing the truth, but with no meat or sustenance in the middle, the so-called growth ended up being an atrociously convenient plot device. Additionally, there were some POVs that literally had no reason to be in the book, or that garnered so much attention as to feel imbalanced and unfinished.
This rushed execution of a climax isn’t limited to the sole POV but makes an appearance in the final two chapters of the novel to the point where I felt so frustrated with it, I almost threw it. Everything in Bury What We Cannot Take takes it’s time with details to create an involving reading experience. There is a fluid execution of events that take the reader from point A to point B so that we don’t miss any part of the journey. Nevertheless, in the last portion, all of that careful storytelling is thrown overboard. I felt as if the author had reached their word count limit, or a page limit and needed to hastily wrap things up. It was wholeheartedly misplaced and detracted from the brilliant quality of all of the things that preceded it to the point where I dropped my rating by two stars.
Overall, Bury What We Cannot Take is a bloody important book that I recommend to readers of Chinese literature, historical fiction, and/or people who gear towards narratives surrounding complex family dynamics in ethnically diverse cultures and histories. Regardless of the shortcomings I mentioned, the story and the themes within the pages of the novel is something that is far from disappointing and are worth checking out.
3 frames outta 5!