From 1895 to 1945 Taiwan was under the rule of Japan. After WWII, Taiwan became a one-party military dictatorship until 1980, when it finally became a democracy. The Republic of China (ROC) was founded in 1915, but after the Chinese civil war the ROC lost control of the mainland and became a government in exile in Taiwan. Shawna Yang Ryan’s novel Green Island chronicles the struggles of the Tsai family during this tumultuous era.
On the one hand, being Taiwanese under Japanese control is “like being a guitar-playing monkey: their fluent Japanese elicited awe from the people they met, yet they were considered not-quite-whole-people.” On the other hand, after the ROC takes over, “[t]he Nationalists saw the ignorance of the Taiwanese as more evidence of their brainwashing under the Japanese and treated them not as rescued compatriots, but like conquered adversaries.” However, it is not just a new language and government that the Taiwanese have to adapt to; they must also become Chinese overnight. Forced to abandon their roots and adopt an alien identity, they are no more than “an empty signifier.”
The unnamed narrator of Green Island is born in 1947, on the night a government-supported massacre shakes Taipei after a widow cigarette vendor is shot dead by Chinese soldiers. The narrative starts from the day of the narrator’s birth and takes us through the various challenges that the Tsai family faces over the decades. Tsai is a doctor and an idealist who helps his wife give birth to their youngest daughter. His “belief that the world was as sensible as he was” leads to his unofficial arrest that takes him away from his family, and the youngest daughter grows up without knowing where and why her father disappeared.
A family torn apart by war comes to realise that not all reunions have happy endings
Her mother, however, has never stopped believing that he is still alive. She tells herself that she must be vigilant against forgetting, but years later when he returns, he and his family are strangers to each other. It’s hard to decide who you pity more, the father or his wife. Ryan’s description of the couple’s estrangement is perhaps the strongest point of Green Island: “What was recognition? she thought. She had recognised his face the day he arrived, but she could not say she knew this man who moved without sense.” The wife wants to forget the past, but Tsai wears it like a wound that refuses to heal. “She didn’t know and couldn’t have known how the days had churned away for him or how her touch singed his skin. For her, he endured it.”
Even the youngest daughter is disturbed by the stranger who, in the name of supervising her education, forces his way into her life. “I wish Baba would be normal. Ordinary.” What she doesn’t understand is that by teaching her, he is able to forget his own troubles.
Green Island is a historical novel, but it takes us beyond the material impact of history to the psychological and emotional repercussions of certain events. Ryan adeptly portrays what it must feel like to live in a constant fear of the end, whether that of individual life or so-called peace: “Armageddon was coming — always approaching, never arriving — in the guise of a showdown between communism and democracy.”
Ryan believes that our identities as well as our destinies are shaped by events that are not in our control. The narrator of Green Island takes up writing in order to salvage some semblance of control over her own story: “When I got older, I still thought I could write life. I didn’t understand, as my mother had… that it is the other way around. And yet, here I am, still trying.”
Later the narrator marries and moves to California, but she cannot escape the long reach of government cronies and spies. When she has her own children she understands that her father’s betrayal of his friend was caused by his fear for the safety of his family. She comes to find that “the loss of freedom isn’t a restriction of movement; it’s the unending feeling of being watched.” Right and wrong, she realises, are not as black and white as she imagined. “Truth. Sincerity. Honesty and accuracy were all synonyms, but with different connotations. What kind of truth did they want? What kind of truth — if any — would set him free?” Sadly, there is no redemption for these tortured souls; all they have is love and remorse which brings them momentary relief from the consequences of their actions and the unrelenting hold of history.
With raw, mesmerising prose, an engaging narrative style and relatable characters, Green Island is a beautiful novel that will break your heart over and over again. Despite its cynically realistic narrative approach, it manages to restore our faith in humanity, albeit a humanity that is fractured beyond healing. Since I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun which moved me on a personal level in a way that contemporary novels rarely do, Green Island has impacted me in a way that I doubt I would be able to forget. I can’t think of a better way to end this review than with this short excerpt from the book:
“I imagine my mother contemplating time. It seems to her like a train on a circular track. Passengers were lost in its seductive sway, in the present beauty of the scenery passing by, only to find, before they knew it, that they were stranded in the very same place from which they had set out. Once the journey was over, it was as if it had never taken place. Had she moved? Had he come home? Or had it been a delusion and she would walk out to find that she had been alone for nearly 25 years.”
The reviewer is an Ankara-based freelance writer and critic
By Shawna Yang Ryan
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 19th, 2017