Shawna Yang Ryan’s new novel, “Green Island,” plays out against the backdrop of Taiwan’s haunting history. Ryan appears Feb. 23 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park and Feb. 24 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
We never learn the name of the narrator of Shawna Yang Ryan’s novel “Green Island” (Knopf, 385 pp., $26.95), a woman who at her birth in 1947 Taipei “joined the street dogs in howling my way into that silent city.” A citizen of a country plunged into martial law imposed by Chinese authorities (Taiwan was under China’s control for some years after World War II), she was born on a night of disorder and uprising. Soon after her birth, her father vanished for 11 years, returning a changed, ghostlike man.
An intricate, gracefully told tale that blends war history, suspense and a woman’s coming-of-age and beyond, “Green Island” spans six decades, transporting its reader from postwar Taiwan to 1970s Berkeley (where the narrator moves with her husband and raises her children), ending up again in Taipei in 2003 as the country panics in the face of the SARS virus. Through it all, our nameless narrator watches, ponders, paints pictures with words. “When I got older, I still thought I could write life,” she muses, early in the book. “I didn’t understand … that it is the other way around. And yet, here I am, still trying.”
Ryan, who teaches creative writing at the University of Hawaii and has written one previous novel (“Water Ghosts”), notes in the book’s afterword that “Green Island” was a 14-year project, involving elaborate research both at home and in Taiwan. (She provides a list of a dozen additional titles, for those wishing to learn more about the period her novel depicts.) As one who knew little about Taiwan’s history, I found this book to be an eye-opener, as our narrator’s family — first her father, later her husband — becomes viciously entangled with the ruling government. Woven into the narrative are questions about Taiwan’s role, and its fate.
Shawna Yang Ryan
The author of “Green Island” will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 23, at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or thirdplacebooks.com). She will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 24, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
But while the history is compelling, what kept this reader’s eyes drawn to the page was Ryan’s way of creating a scene. This is the kind of book where even the odors seem vivid: the staleness of a cheap hotel room that’s been occupied too long; an elderly man’s unique blend of menthol oil, nicotine and old-school aftershave; how, to a prisoner, his wife smells “like the world: like soap and streets and restaurants and traffic lights and parks and people.”
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The pages bloom with description, with a photolike sense of place. Taipei, in the 1960s, “seemed doused in olive drab”; its streets chaotic. In Berkeley, just a few years later, in a brown-shingled house with a swing set crushing the grass in the backyard, Taiwan seemed something unimaginable — “a tiny island far away, almost mythical.” And throughout “Green Island” is an aching sense of the idea of home: Is it the place we’re from, or the place we chose? Is home found in the way a place feels or tastes or smells? Is it the place we see from an airplane window, becoming a tiny green patchwork as we watch, or the place at which we will arrive? Or is it the person sitting next to us — or a person who’s no longer there?
Late in the book, our narrator thinks she sees someone from her past; someone she knows to be dead, but who is an inextricable part of both her and her country’s story. “There must be a word for a person there and not there,” muses the narrator. “Something more concrete than a ghost, and realer than a memory.”