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the gods of heavently punishment

Source: Review copy from W.W. Norton & Company
Rating:★★★★★

What kind of a people, she wondered, does what was done that day and then has no concept of the enormity of their act?

(from The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, page 339)

On the surface, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is a novel about the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 during World War II and a handful of people from different walks of life who are impacted by the war.  But it goes so much deeper than that.  Jennifer Cody Epstein introduces her characters before the war, when life was filled with promise, and lets readers follow them through the darkest days of the war and the period of change afterward.

The novel opens with Cam and Lacy on a ferris wheel at a fair in New York.  Cam is shy and quiet from years of being ridiculed by his father for his stutter, while Lacy is a take-charge kind of woman who sets their relationship in motion.  The hopes and dreams they have are put on hold when war breaks out, and Cam joins the U.S. Army Air Corps.  Epstein has readers sit in the cockpit with Cam as he takes part in the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April 1942.

Epstein also introduces readers to Anton, the architect behind many of Tokyo’s modern structures who is later called on by the U.S. military to help destroy them.  His son, Billy, is a sensitive soul who doesn’t fit in and feels at home only behind a camera.  Hana, a passionate, modern woman who eschews the old Japanese ways, feels abandoned by the men she has loved and is resigned to a loveless, arranged marriage.  Yoshi is torn between her love for her troubled mother and her need to escape the depression that permeates their home — and then the incendiary bombs rain down on Tokyo.

These characters were intriguing and their stories fascinating on their own, but when the pieces fell into place and the connections between them were made known, I was blown away.  Epstein does a wonderful job painting a picture of Tokyo before and after and makes you feel like you are standing beside Yoshi when the bombs drop, feeling the heat, tasting the smoke, getting lost in all the chaos and confusion.  She is a master storyteller, enabling readers to really get to know her characters as they flit in and out of their lives.

Epstein focuses on the contrasts that make war so complex: before vs. after, war vs. murder, orders vs. ethics, victors vs. victims, us vs. them.  With characters that straddle both sides, she explores the gray areas of war and identity.  Billy was born and raised in Japan but isn’t Japanese.  Yoshi speaks Japanese, English, and French, thanks to her mother, Hana, who was educated in England and feels more English than Japanese.  They desire love, acceptance, security, and to know their true selves — and the war makes their search for these essentials more desperate and necessary.

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is beautifully written and skillfully constructed.  Epstein moves back and forth between the characters, telling seemingly separate stories, and while readers may not understand where she is taking them, they will be rewarded for their patience in the end.  It’s not an easy book to read given the subject matter, and Epstein doesn’t flinch in her descriptions of the atrocities perpetrated by both sides.  No book about war can be wrapped up neatly or painlessly, but Epstein manages to infuse the ending with hope.  Tokyo is a symbol of these characters, who are brought down by their families and the war, and those who manage to survive will be reborn.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on The Gods of Heavenly Punishment tour.  To follow the tour, click here.

historical fiction reading challenge

Book 16 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I received The Gods of Heavenly Punishment from W.W. Norton & Company for review.

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Yesterday, I reviewed The Painter From Shanghai (you can read my review here) by Jennifer Cody Epstein. It was hard to put into words how much I loved this book. I was so engrossed that I almost missed my bus stop! So I was very excited when Jennifer agreed to let me interview her about her novelization of the life of the Chinese painter Pan Yuliang (1899-1977).

When did you first learn of Pan Yuliang, and why did you decide to write her story?

I was actually at the Guggenheim with my husband and some relatives–roughly ten years ago. The exhibition–which was amazing–was on Modern Chinese Art, and there was just one image by Pan Yuliang on display. But it drew me over immediately; it was a typical Pan Yuliang in that it was very evocative of Matisse and Cezanne, and the bright, bold colors and distinctly Western setting (as compared to the huge propaganda-style images and much more subtle ink paintings around it) really stood out for me. I went over to see more, and when I read about Pan’s story (prostitute-concubine-Post-Impressionist icon; really?!) it just blew me away. I’d never heard of her before–but I couldn’t, at that moment, understand why–it struck me that everyone should know about her.

How much of Pan Yuliang’s story in The Painter From Shanghai is true?

Hmmm–maybe 40 percent, tops? I tried to keep true to the broad, factual strokes of her life–things like dates and places. It wasn’t easy, as there really isn’t much on her life (even in Chinese), and what there is is somewhat mythologized at this point (even the birthdate on her gravestone in Paris is generally agreed to be inaccurate). But there’s some agreement on when she was at school, which cities she was in when, and who her main influences and teachers were. So I started with that.

How much research did you do to write The Painter From Shanghai, and how long did it take to write?

Probably a lot more research than was necessary! Although as a former journalist and erstwhile academic (I love universities and basically try to spend as much time as I can at them), the research was actually far less intimidating for me than the writing. For about two years, I really just researched, without writing a word (or, rather, writing mediocre short stories that never seemed to go anywhere). I read everything I could find on China during this period in English, online, in texts, and novels. I also enlisted the help of Chinese- and French-speaking friends to help translate and research relevant texts in those languages (one friend, for example, spent hours on my behest at the Beaux Arts library in Paris), and to vet what I was writing for mistakes. I interviewed a few art historians, painters, and the curator of the Guggenheim exhibit at which I first discovered Pan’s work. I also took a couple of painting courses to get a sense of the process and the feeling of painting (although the strongest sense I got was that I’m a far better writer than painter!). At some point I realized that I was using the research as a crutch to keep from starting the novel, because the idea scared me so much. So I had to wean myself off the books and onto Word. From there, give or take the two kids I had en route, it was about eight years.

Could you describe your writing process?

It’s still somewhat in formation–but I essentially just make a point of trying to write something–ANYTHING–every time I sit down. I write fairly quickly, so I usually end up with five or more pages a session; then, the next session, I’ll begin with those pages, rework them and/or discard them, and try to move on. I’m very big on revision and reduction; at the end of The Painter From Shanghai, I had about 600 pages in my “cut” file (the file into which I put everything I write and then decide not to use, but can’t stand to completely delete). But I try to keep in mind something a writing mentor told me once; that even the stuff you take out adds to the finished product. It’s better to have written it and taken it out than to have never had that process.

You note in the beginning that The Painter From Shanghai is a fictionalized account of Pan Yuliang’s life. What do you want readers to take from the book about Yuliang?

I think essentially, and most importantly, just the knowledge that this extraordinary person lived and created. Pan Yuliang strikes me–not just in terms of talent, but raw perseverance–as a true heroine and inspiration. The only thing I can come up with in terms of her relative obscurity–at least in the West–is that she was Chinese, and most Westerners aren’t very familiar with China’s history or its arts. I also think the fact that she’s a woman had a lot to do with it; women–particularly in her time–were given even lesser opportunity for advancement than they were here, and I think her history as a prostitute made it seem in bad taste to many to appreciate her art (even now I get the sense that it casts a disproportionately long shadow over her accomplishments in China). Though I also think it can be argued that women are largely being left out of the current Asian art boom–for whatever reason that might be.

What are you working on now?

Something set in Tokyo during World War II. I actually have far more experience in Japan than in China (I lived there for five years and speak the language fairly well), so it’ll be a nice change!

Thanks, Jennifer, for taking time out of your busy schedule to let me interview you! You can bet I’ll read the next book! (I love the WWII period!

Disclosure: I am an Amazon associate.

© 2008 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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I never heard of the Chinese painter Pan Yuliang (1899-1977) until I picked up Jennifer Cody Epstein’s The Painter From Shanghai, but it’s easy to see why Epstein would want to paint the story of a woman who shocked pre-Communist China with nude self-portraits reminiscent of Cezanne. Little is known about Yuliang, other than her status as a prostitute, concubine, and Parisian artist, and Epstein does a superb job showing what her life might have been like.

Epstein quickly draws the reader into the story of an innocent orphan girl sold to a brothel by her uncle to support his opium habit. She adopts the name Yuliang, or Good Jade, and learns the ropes from the brothel’s “top girl” and Yuliang’s first love, Jinling. Yuliang is told by Jinling to think of the body as just skin in order to survive. Later, after Pan Zanhua, the wealthy tax inspector, liberates her from the brothel and makes her his second wife, Yuliang begins putting her sketches ahead of the reading and writing lessons her husband prepares for her. Zanhua is a modern man (who also frees her from the confines of bound feet) and supports her desire to pursue art even when it takes her far from him. Yuliang’s first instructor, Hong Ye, tells her to see the body as more than skin, and Epstein uses sensual language, her own flowing brushstrokes, to make Yuliang’s art come to life.

Forcing herself to pause, Yuliang refills her glass, watching Mirror Girl do the same. For an instant, that framed image seems inexplicably shocking. As though she were pouring herself a glass of blood. And yet lifting the glass again, she can’t help but think that she’d like to fill a canvas with this color. With precisely this color, which is not cadmium or terra rose or even manganese violet but some uncapturable combination of them all–a tone both illicit and essential. (from The Painter From Shanghai)

Epstein shows Yuliang’s rise to fame in the art world, uniquely combining techniques from the East and West, as well as the controversy that arises when her nudes are on display. She tackles the cultural norms of the day, particularly the sensitive issue of women art students attending classes with nude models, along with the political turmoil affecting China in the 1920s and 1930s. The novel never once falls flat, with Epstein carrying the reader seamlessly through each transition in Yuliang’s life. She brings Yuliang’s art and the creative process to life in such a way that you don’t need to be an art aficionado to appreciate Yuliang’s work.

I’m someone who strolls through art museums admiring the work but rarely stopping to ponder a particular piece for any length of time, but I spent a lot of time on Epstein’s website staring at Yuliang’s paintings. I sat there contemplating the real story of an artist who overcame the prison of the brothel, the low social status of concubine (and woman), and stifling cultural norms but left so little of the truth behind. The paintings themselves tell a story, and it’s not hard to see why Epstein felt a need to fill in the gaps of Yuliang’s life story.

Epstein’s first novel is a huge effort, but all the hard work paid off.

Disclosure:  I received a copy of The Painter From Shanghai from the author for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2008 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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