This terrifying, cathartic and utterly gripping book - still officially forbidden in mainland China, where communists prefer to sweep the past under the rag - appears initially as a personal, family saga, where in fact it represents multi-layered depiction of last hundred years in society that went trough huge metamorphosis. Jung Chang is surprisingly open and clear-eyed, considering her upbringing discouraged any show of affections - allegedly she left the past behind and didn't even want to think about it, until mother visited her and for the first time disclosed until never discussed stories about hardships. Chang herself was battling breast cancer at the time, so there might have been a sense of urgency to tell the story.
I have encountered the expression "cultural revolution" only just recently, during my visits to Shanghai and local museums, where curators pointed that these ancient art objects somehow miraculously escaped being destroyed during 1960s - it piqued my interest, so I checked out disturbing "Red scarf girl" and now "Wild Swans" that profoundly shook me to the core. If the title suggest women's novel, it just appear so on the surface - this is a epic saga covering last hundred years in China and how the ordinary people lived, died and coped trough fall of the empire and rise of communism. From time to time I thought this was too brutal to even contemplate but I couldn't stop reading it - it is very disturbing, mostly because its all new to me - I vaguely knew about political pogroms in Stalin's Russia, but nothing about recent history of China, so this was really eye-opening experience. There are million unforgettable details that will forever stick in your memory - too many to count here - but it all comes down to how the whole society can suddenly become brainwashed and sink into collective psychosis, the mobs mercilessly taunting any individual careless to stick out too much out of line, politics going so far to actually rule people private's lives (imagine the state where married couples have to live apart and can spend twelve days together per year, private kitchen are forbidden, meals are only served in public canteens, children are made to denounce parents, screaming paroles are being shouted trough loud speakers everywhere, etc, etc) and of course some distant Big Brother figure looming on the horizon (in this case, Mao Zedong with his vindictive wife in the background).
If the first part ("Grandmother's story") is at first a bit shaky, its only because hers is a story completely alien to modern readers, some other, distant time when daughters were considered so insignificant that they would not even get the proper name ("daughter nr.2") and packing her off as official concubine was the only thing the whole family aspired to. That initial introduction was not very exciting, but once I continued with "Mother's story" things picked up immediately - we arrived in modern era and post-WW2 China, where new regime replaced the old, lives are centred around communist party and atmosphere of prosecution gradually builds up to a fever pitch. With "Chang's story" I found myself totally enthralled and involved - at this point it was impossible to put the darn book down and I just couldn't wait to get back to it. If I had my way, I would probably read it at work somewhere under the counter. I have just finished it today and my head is still buzzing. If you are interested, you can hear Jung Chang herself as celebrity guest on classic BBC4 radio program "Desert Island Disc" where she explains how and why she wrote this book - her speaking voice is just as lovely as one would expect: