Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang really surprised me. I went into this read with little to no expectations and ended up with a new favorite.
I don’t usually read historical fiction, but the combined promise of great writing & the addition of a fantasy element in this book won me over.
The major charm of this novel is how well it managed to pull off a big story idea by remaining aware of, and focused on, the story it was trying to tell.
The grand property on Dragon Springs Road, located just outside Shanghai, boasts an old style of Chinese luxury in a time where westernization is rampant. There are three separate residences behind its walls, each with their own courtyard and fresh water well, but occupants come and go.
Our story begins when our female protagonist, Jialing, age 7, is left behind by her mother while the rest of family moves away from Dragon Springs Road. Confused and hungry, she is then discovered by the eldest daughter of the new occupants.
We learn that Jialing is zazhong, or Eurasian. Likely the child of a Chinese prostitute and a western man. But the heavy winter tunic she’s wearing has fine embroidery work, and coins + a note sewn into it, confirming she was left behind by a mother who hopes she will be cared for.
Grandmother Yang, the matriarch of this new family, see's taking her in as a way to win favor with the Buddha, and makes Jialing their bond servant.
The Two Halves of this Story
In the first half of the novel each chapter is a new year. We watch Jialing age, China transform, and the Yang’s ups and downs with fortune.
We wonder if Jialing’s mother will come back for her, and if she doesn’t, what future can she possibly hope for?
Along the way it becomes increasingly clear that the business world of Shanghai is cutthroat. Introductions are necessary, but connections and money are the only way to get introductions. The Yangs might own the grand Dragon Springs Road property, but even they struggle with this.
Jialing by comparison doesn't stand a chance. Being a female, an orphan, and mixed raced is practically a death sentence.
Despite everything stacked against her, we the reader can see her potential.
Jialing has useful friendships with the eldest Yang daughter & the fox spirit who frequents the property. She gets the unlikely opportunity to go to school. And by the time she's a young adult, she ends up with a network of influential men in her life.
But no matter what she might gain, her mixed blood is ultimately still in her way.
In the second half of the novel Jialing is an adult, the years stop flying by and we suddenly find ourselves with a familiar cast of characters, built up in the previous half and linked together in unlikely ways. The stakes are high. The consequences harsh. But we the reader remain hopeful throughout.
We understand this time period, as well as, whats at stake for all the major players, and suddenly the drama really takes off.
Praise for Dragon Springs Road
The payoff in this novel is very satisfying.
What's built up in the first half seems interesting enough at the time, but then becomes more meaningful later on.
The author does a good job of showing the harshness of this time period while not forcing us to dwell on it. You feel the weight of each misfortune without the reading experience becoming overly melancholy.
Instead, the overall tone lands somewhere between desperate and hopeful, which made me feel like it was always progressing.
The mysteries we wonder about as the reader aren't forgotten by the author, so you feel rewarded for paying attention after truths are revealed to Jialing.
At the end there’s a realistic balance between what we can and can't have closure for. The story wraps up nicely, without wrapping up completely, or conveniently.
I loved the character of the fox spirit. The inclusion of the supernatural realm broke up the bleakness of Jialing's reality, gave us a solid reason to have hope, and offered a glimpse into China during the years prior to when the novel takes place.
I highly recommend it! I think this novel would have mass appeal.
Have you read any Janie Chang novels? I plan to read her other two this year!
Thanks for reading!
Photo taken by me.