“It was entitlement that drove these men forward. Entitlement that encouraged their wives to place a delicate handkerchief to their nose and sniff, wholeheartedly believing the tirade was deserved. They believed themselves the rulers of the world—on stolen land in America, on stolen land in Shanghai.”
These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong is an own-voices Chinese young adult historical fiction story that is an imaginative re-telling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This breath-taking debut novel takes place in 1920s Shanghai where a blood feud between the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers runs the streets, leaving the city in the grips of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper that has assumed the role of proud heir to the Scarlet Gang, and Roma Montagov, who happens to be the White Flowers heir apparent, as well as Juliette’s first love… and first betrayal.
There was so much hype surrounding this novel prior to its release that I felt extremely hesitant at picking it up. Yet, the premise combined with the fact that it’s an own-voices Asian literature read overwhelmed me with curiosity. I couldn’t resist it and in this case, I’m so glad that I gave in because this is one of the best debut novels I’ve read in 2020.
The beauty of These Violent Delights lies with the writing. Brilliantly lyrical and poetic, it is supremely transportive, taking the reader straight into the heart of 1920s Shanghai. The heavy use of descriptives combined with the experimental nature of the prose makes it easy to become utterly captivated by the ambiance, characters, political tensions, and terror. It’s unexpectedly astounding.
Then we have our two main characters, Roma and Juliette. Roma is someone who is not exactly what he seems to be. The heir to the White Flowers gang, one expects him to be as merciless and vindictive as his father, yet Roma has a very kind and compassionate heart. He is caring and tender and absolutely loathes the violence that his family has built their wealth and reputation upon. Because of these two sides to him, it makes him a complex individual that one can’t help but empathise with.
Then there is Juliette. Gorgeous, incredibly intelligent Juliette; the woman has my heart in the very palm of her hand. She could punch me in the face and the jam her stiletto in my throat and I would legit die happy as a hummingbird. Juliette is marvellously cunning and headstrong, fierce and ruthless, impulsive yet methodical. Even with all these must-have traits for the gangster heiress, she is also vulnerable and deeply conflicted in what she wants. The subtle shades of an identity crisis as she works to fit in with being the perfect leader of the Scarlet Gang while fighting the influences of her time spent in America further depicts the emotional susceptibilities that she has.
When you put these two individuals together, everything that makes them independently so multi-faceted shines through with more intensity. The romance between them is wickedly slow-burn, yanking on one’s emotions with a heavy load of angst, which is balanced between the dark cloud of their tragic past and the yearning that still burns within them. Because they have all this baggage, every time they are together, there is a strong air of suspense as the reader doesn’t know if they’re going to try and kill one another or kiss each other. It’s positively riveting.
Even with the exquisitely crafted characters, my absolute favourite part of These Violent Delights is the straightforward commentary on occupation and the Western imperialism of Shanghai. The overarching threat of the plot runs parallel with the political upheaval and provides a wonderful backbone allegory for how Shanghai is being ripped apart by foreigners like meat to a bunch of starving, rapid dogs. Pieces of the city are being torn and erased with the rise of class conflicts, gender biases, and as a new hierarchy starts taking shape, one that is working to systematically remove the Chinese people, their culture and their identities completely. It’s quite possibly the most fascinating aspect, especially if the reader is a history buff, because it provides such amazing insight into an era and destination that is rarely seen in the historical fiction (or even nonfiction) genre.
Overall, These Violent Delights is such an exceptional novel. It has everything that a fan of historical fiction and stories dripping with blood feuds could want. It is awesomely violent and savage with intelligent representation of how an international city becomes corrupted from the inside out by poisonous Western influences and oppression. A ton of multi-dimensional characters that walk in the many shades of grey making it impossible to outright hate them or love them unconditionally. A doomed romance with some of the most blazing hot chemistry I have seen in the YA genre. Best of all, such outstandingly lush and expressive writing that ties everything together quite phenomenally. Highly recommend for readers who love all of these qualities and much more.
Publication Date: 17-November-2020
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderly Books
Genre: Chinese Literature, Young Adult Historical Fiction
Page Count: 464
Content Warning(s): Mention and graphic description of blood, gore, violence, body horror involving insects, and deaths. Explicit scenes of self-gouging (against the characters’ will). Murder. Abuse by a parent. Alcohol consumption. Drug production (mild). Mild cursing. Colonialism. Racism. Sexism (mild). Transphobia.
GoodReads: These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong