A somewhat joyless sequel to Pulitzer winning novel "The Good Earth", this one is even grimmer as it deals with inevitable consequences of children squandering considerable family inheritance. Not that there was anything remotely sidesplitting about "The Good Earth" - it was unflinchingly honest look at life of full of hunger, suffering, sacrifices and hard toil but even trough all of this, we could feel some sympathy and affection for poor peasant Wang Lung and his wife O-lan. Pearl Buck must be the most unsentimental writer I have ever encountered, as she insist on certain emotional detachment from her main characters - effectively sentencing them to became one-dimensional symbols of personal ambitions and it took me almost the whole novel to accept that this is all there is to it. That none of the sons is at least pleasant is cleverly disguised with the main focus spotlighting the youngest son who had certain military ambitions - once you finish the last page, you realise that all three brothers are equally unrepentant in their ways and none is better than the other. Just as they turned their back to life, sweat and efforts of Wang Lung, their own kids will do everything to be different people from their own parents.
There were moments when I would get caught up in a story, but mostly because it was about some character from "The Good Earth" that I still remembered and cared for. Basically you might say that I plowed trough the whole novel under completely false hope that all these knots and interrelationships would result in happy endings - alas dear reader, there is not a single happy wedding here, in fact Buck is so stern that occasionally one wish for just a little bit of softness. Tiny, weeny, itsy-bitsy morsel of humanity instead of describing them as "son nr.2" or "peasant nr.3" or "man with harelip". I understand that Buck had her own vision of taciturn people who live by their own wits and she purposely described them as firm, unforgiving people with no patience for tenderness - maybe this is what she saw around her as she was growing up in China, who knows? In any case, personally I remember having much more joy and affection for "The Good Earth" than its sequel, perhaps because the parents generation was still close to ordinary people so when everybody hungered, they hungered too. Now with the second generation - sons - we approach privileged class that looks down upon the rest of the villagers and put themselves above others. When hunger and starvation knocks at the door, sons have no empathy or compassion for the villagers because they don't remember ever experiencing the hunger, in fact we realise with a shock that they might not even remember their parents so well.
Can't help but to notice certain projections - peasants are ignorant, priests greedy, landlords cruel, warriors cunning - only catholic missionaries are compassionate, is this how you saw it Mrs.Buck? For the first time I started to understand why Chinese were so offended with her novels. It was written in her beautiful, inimitable style but I had a hard time plowing trough the novel where main characters are so unlikable. Oh, how I wished we could get chapter or two about other, underprivileged relatives and cousins instead of Tiger warlord - his mysterious first wife could have a novel herself. Little hunchback boy with his little team huddled in that forgotten hut got my attention far more than any of the sons gobbling the food over their family squabbles. It was a gripping read but it left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth and perhaps I should wait a little before going on the third part of the trilogy.