The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
US pub date: March 21, 2017
I’ve been a huge fan of Lisa See for years. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Shanghai Girls, and Dreams of Joy are some of my all-time favorite historical fiction novels. But then in 2014 she came out with China Dolls which many, myself included, considered a massive disappointment and not at all up to her usual standard. As this is the first novel she’s published since then, it was with both excitement and trepidation that I approached The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. Was China Dolls a random flop, or an indication of a new direction in her writing?
Well, it’s safe to breathe a sigh of relief, because Lisa See is back, with this compulsively readable tale of a Chinese girl from a southeastern hill tribe, who gives her baby up for adoption after giving birth out of wedlock.
My favorite thing about Lisa See’s novels is her unerring attention to detail and her skill at immersing the reader in different periods and locations throughout Chinese history. In this case, the novel begins in 1988, and our narrator Li-yan is a member of the Akha tribe – a ethnic group that I knew absolutely nothing about before picking up this novel. Lisa See sheds light onto their rich history and culture in a way that’s both engrossing and sensitive. She also delves into a lot of other subjects that I now know much more about than I did a week ago: the history of pu’er tea, Chinese land ownership laws in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, the shifting growth of the international tea economy. This was a very illuminating read on multiple levels, and the historical elements weave seamlessly through Li-yan’s narrative. Though Li-yan begins the story as a bright young girl with a promising future in academia, a series of difficult choices leads her to hardship early on in her life, which only serves to fortify her character as the story continues. Meanwhile we catch glimpses of Li-yan’s daughter, Haley, who grows up searching for answers about the identity of her birth parents and her heritage. It’s a captivating, moving story, which keeps the reader constantly engaged despite its length, and although its footing falters somewhat around the 60% mark, it culminates in an ultimately gratifying conclusion.
4 stars instead of 5 because I wasn’t completely satisfied with See’s prose this time around. One sort of awkward characteristic of her writing is a tendency to favor authenticity over poetic license – let’s take the most obvious example, “doing the intercourse.” Is this a more direct translation than “having sex” from the Akha’s Sino-Tibetan language? I actually have no idea. Probably. I trust Lisa See’s research skills. But the awkward translation also lends a slight sense of absurdity to See’s otherwise solid prose, as do the abundance of exclamation points and the frequent interjection waaa! in the middle of the narrator’s thoughts.
For the full Lisa See experience, I cannot recommend Snow Flower and/or Shanghai Girls/Dreams of Joy highly enough. But if prose isn’t the make it or break it factor for you (and I will stress that it wasn’t bad, just not quite up to the standard that I know See is capable of), The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane has a lot to offer. It’s a richly detailed story that spans several decades and multiple locations, both in southeast China and America; it’s a story about the strength born from suffering and the reconciliation of innovation and tradition, told in a fascinating and unique historical narrative.
I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Netgalley, Scribner, and Lisa See.