REVIEW: Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

Just ten pages in, I closed the book. While this book is fictional, the confronting reality it presents makes me wonder how many families have experienced the type of severe struggle that Zhang describes. I was overwhelmed. I had grown up in a low socio-economic neighbourhood where racial and class tensions were abundant. Where I grew up, families were packed into government housing like sardines in a tin can, and some children didn’t have any lunch money. Money was tight and my family often had to forgo little luxuries to scrape by. This is where Zhang’s short story collection resonated with me. At ten pages in, I closed the book momentarily to allow memories of struggle to resurface, and then to remember that I was one of the luckier ones - Zhang prompts a reflection concerning the ugly truths of poverty, immigration and barriers to assimilation and self-determination.

This poignant painting of struggle is told through the stories of inter-connected young Chinese-American girls upon their immigration to New York, USA. These girls chronicle their journey oscillating between their cultural histories and the desires accompanying their new American life. This is often displayed through the recollections of these daughters - through their interactions with their family members, along with their interactions with their peers in America. In Our Mothers Before Them, Zhang presents a contrast of American life with a continually shifting focus from New York 1996, to Shanghai 1966. This particular short story (the pinnacle of the novel for myself) interjects a tale of a family who has risen from extreme struggle since they arrived in the United States but at the cost of the relationship of the parents, with memories from a violent time in the revolution. It appears to serve as a reminder that although the parents of Zhang’s narrators persist to ask ‘what if’ - could they have afforded to pursue their creative endeavours had they stayed in China? Did they not try hard enough when they came to America? - the conditions of their home may have restricted them as much as the poverty they endured. They walk a fine line between two worlds that have knocked them down.

There are some graphic scenes in this novel, largely of decrepit apartments and abhorrent living conditions. However, there are a couple of instances that detail the discovery of sexuality by young children and this may be confronting for some readers. Zhang explores Asian-American femininity and sexuality through the curious lens of girlhood. The rawness of her descriptions adheres to the feminist doctrine that women have their own sexual existence that exists outside of delicate, submissive trope they are so often squeezed into.

Sour Heart was a nostalgic read as I remembered my own history of growing up working-class, as a young girl with no siblings to help me navigate the notion of puberty and female sexuality. Stories of friendship and family relationships exposed how vulnerable we are to those who love us most and when we do not know otherwise. This book is not for everyone and may have more of a cultural resonance with some more than others, but for every reader, the reflections on the curiosities of girlhood may draw you in.

“I feel self-conscious and stupid crying for myself - for my shame, for my regrets, for how quickly a childhood happens.” (p. 174)

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