Review: Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang

“The only thing you can count on is that the gods make other plans.”

Janie Chang’s Dragon Springs Road was one of my favourite reads of 2017. I never got to talk about it, so I figured it was high time I remedied that.

At the turn of the 20th century in Shanghai, Jialing is abandoned by her mother. Jialing had not known at the time that her mother would be leaving her for good. Jialing had promised to stay hidden away in the courtyard and so she does, with only Fox to keep her company. When days pass and a new family moves in to the house on Dragon Springs Road, Jialing is forced to face facts. She is a half Chinese and half European and her mother left her behind to be cared for by someone else.

The Yang family opts to take Jialing in as a bonded servant. It is less than ideal, but this the point at which Jialing begins to be aware of the world around her, what it means to be a woman in this place and time, what it means to be biracial, what an education could offer Jialing, why only she can see Fox, and the real reason behind her mother’s disappearance. The personal and the political are both very much entwined for Jialing and Janie Chang does an excellent job balancing Jialing’s own troubles with troubles brewing in China. There is also a strong folklore element that runs through the novel in the form of Fox, who is as big a character as Jialing, even if she isn’t as present/active in the narrative.

I picked this book up as an audio. It’s narrated by Emily Woo Zeller, whose voice I fell in love with after I’d listened to her read Stacey Lee’s Outrun the Moon. This audiobook is equally excellent and there were definitely times when Zeller’s acting had me close to tears on the TTC (for once, not crying about the transit itself). It helps that Chang’s writing is thoughtful, well-researched (from what I can tell), and tugs at your heartstrings with each new chapter in Jialing’s life.

I do not have any major complaints of the book, only perhaps that a major romance could have been introduced earlier in the novel, but the story still flowed along to its conclusion rather smoothly. The thing I loved most about Dragon Springs Road is that the characters all have their own heartaches and moral quandaries, sometimes their decisions help Jialing and sometimes she is harmed. But despite having few advantages in life, Jialing still finds ways to give herself choices. She is not just a leaf being buffeted by the winds. You can tell it these actions/reactions were all very well planned and reading the novel shows perfect execution. I highly recommend this novel, especially if you’re looking for to go somewhere faraway during this dreary January.