Green Island: A Novel- Not your every day beach read

First of all, I’d like to thank Penguin’s First to Read for this advance reader copy.

Next, whoa. Shawna Yang Ryan’s Green Island is a trip and a half, especially for someone not used to historical fiction. The story follows an unnamed narrator, born on the same day as the February 28th riot in Taiwan, from birth all the way to her 60s, with all of the political and familial turmoil in between. The youngest child of the four Tsai children, she did not get to know her father until he was released from prison after 11 years for saying one bad word about the government.

From here, the story shows two strong forces: that of family ties, and that of political divisions. Our narrator tries to remain as apolitical as possible, knowing the horrors that her father had to face under the dictatorship, but she marries a radical. Loyalty to the family is by far the most important theme in this novel, since they are the only ones you can trust, and at times barely.

The issue of relationships, between family friends and government, is key here, as well as the issue of identity. Our narrator is Taiwanese in a time where that is functionally meaningless, with China holding on tenuously after gaining control from the Japanese and Taiwanese wanting an identity for themselves. Once our narrator becomes an American, her worldview is even more divided. I suspect it is an identity conflict many other Americans can appreciate.

I enjoyed this much more than I thought I would, being something of a sci-fi buff. However, the beginning is very long, and if you don’t know anything about the Taiwanese conflict (which, let’s be honest, most of us not-too-worldly Americans don’t) you definitely want to read up for this book. I didn’t feel crippled by my lack of knowledge, but felt compelled to learn more about a conflict that seemed to slip so far under the radar even when it shouldn’t have. In this way, Yang Ryan had succeeded: As the book explaons, widespread awareness is often the key in preventing future tragedy.

This is one of those books that grabs you by the (metaphorical) balls and does not let you go until you are finished, feeling drained and more than mildly depressed at the last page. I would not recommend this for the light reader, or one who gets too invested. Here is a story that will eat you whole. I’m still recovering. Four out of five waves!

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