Shanghai Girls by Lisa See: An Incredibly Heartfelt & Devastating Story of Sisterhood During a Time of War – Book Review

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See is an own-voices Chinese historical fiction story and the first book in a duology. It is about two sisters, Pearl and May, who reside in Shanghai. They epitomise the vibrancy of youth with their lush beauty, fashionable clothes, and presumptuous attitudes. While they don’t stem from an absurdly wealthy family, they are still considered to be quite well-off. When their father starts struggling financially, he finds husbands for his daughters, hoping that it will help alleviate his debt, and give his daughters a better life. Pearl and May consider themselves to be “modern” ladies who no longer have a need to follow traditional Chinese customs, such as arranged marriages. So they flee from their cultural obligations, triggering a string of events that create a gripping and compelling story that shall span the course of twenty years.

Every now and again I will find a book that sinks itself straight into my soul, as well as my heart and mind. It leaves behind an intense imprint on how I perceive the world around me as well as the people in it, helping me grow and become more self-aware. Shanghai Girls is precisely this kind of novel, with its myriad themes on psychological trauma from wartime atrocities, being an immigrant in a land that despises you, and the incredible bonds of family togetherness, especially between two siblings.

There are quite a lot of themes in this novel that come together to create a richly detailed and psychologically earnest portrait. One of these themes that felt close to home for me was the American immigrant experience, which was enormously horrifying during this time period, especially for Chinese immigrants. These young girls find their way to a country that is supposed to be the land of the free, but instead they are greeted with another face of imprisonment and interrogation. It shall follow them long after they begin to build a life in America.

Shanghai Girls illustrates this abject experience with excruciating detail. It provide an intimate and uncensored perspective on what it feels like to be judged based solely on something you cannot change, like being Chinese. One of the elements that I really appreciated about See’s writing is that she does this without being offensive, or derogatory. Everything is stated relative to Pearl’s point-of-view (as she is the narrator) and befitting to the time period. There are no unnecessary implications or distasteful revelations behind these girls’ experiences. It just is, which in its simplicity becomes that much more compelling.

Another theme that sprouts at the beginning of the novel, and then later blooms with its finale, is one of identity crisis. As a foreigner raising her child in unfamiliar territory, Pearl finds herself split down the middle. A part of her wishes to instil her traditions and culture into her kid so that they don’t forget their background, their roots. As a parent she wants her children to know, understand, and accept who they are, where they come from. But with living in unknown lands, she also wants to make sure that they don’t struggle in similar ways for being different. Pearl wants them to assimilate in hopes of making their lives better and easier as they grow up in an environment vastly different than her own. This was quite a fascinating aspect of the narrative. It was as if I were looking into my own mum’s private memories and fears. It’s so severely thought-provoking that I could feel it alter my own awareness and sentiment for my parents and what they endured; the second time during my reading experience where I knew my outlook on the world has shifted

Underneath everything, all of the experiences that Pearl goes through, she’s always shared every single step of the journey with one person: May, her younger sister. The heart of this tale that spans 309 pages all comes down to the relationship that these two women share. The choices that they make—to stick together, to move on, to get jobs, to modernise, etc.—infallibly alters the course of their existences. May at times comes off as irritatingly immature and naïve about the real world and the war-torn atmosphere that surrounds them. However, Pearl, draped in fear and loss and traditional Chinese mindset, can be similarly as blind and ignorant. This leads to a lack of communication, but also to a silent form a support from both of them. I think that is the biggest impression in Shanghai Girls. Both ladies are vehemently independent with distinctive personas. They both have a lot of pride, yet they also keep silent so as not cause the other undo suffering. Pearl’s and May’s bond of sisterhood gives Shanghai Girls an extraordinarily awe-inspiring depth of emotional tenacity, that is equal parts frustrating and gratifying.

Shanghai Girls is a superb reading experience that will make you angry, tearful, sorrowful, yet happy, content, and warm-hearted. The writing style is passionate and engrossing. It is one of the best novels that I have ever read in regard to family and the immigrant experience during a time of unfathomable turmoil. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND Shanghai Girls to fans of own-voices cultural historical fiction and stories about the multidimensional threads of family values.

Publication Date: February 2010
Random House (978-0812980530)
Chinese Literature, Historical Fiction
Shanghai Girls Book 1
Page Count:
Content Warnings:
Graphic depiction of wartime atrocities including brutal military colonisation and occupation. Graphic scenes of rape and sexual violence including violence against children. Graphic deaths including death of loved ones and children. Death via starvation and murder. Suicide. Suicide ideation. Passive aggressive manipulation. Child abandonment. Sexism. Misogyny. Detailed scenes of interrogations. Miscarriage. Consensual sexual interactions.
Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
In-print, available in paper and eBook formats.

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