“The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane” by Lisa See

Genre: Historical FictionThe Tea Girl
Publisher: Scribner
Pub. Date: March 21, 2017

I did not receive this book from the publisher. It was a gift. Technically, that means I do not have to write a review. Nevertheless, See is such a gifted writer that I wanted to share my thoughts on “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane.” I know from reading See’s previous novels that her writing will combine a haunting tale that is hard to put down with gripping depictions of Chinese history. In her 2005 novel, “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” one reads vivid descriptions of the excruciating process of footbinding, where daughters were crippled in the name of beauty. Still, the reader comes to have compassion for the characters that inflict and enable this violence.

With “Tea,” See explores another horrifying Chinese practice: the killing of newborn twins. What makes this story even more shocking than “Snow Flower” is that the tale is set in 1988. See transports readers to a remote mountain village where we meet the Akha people. While immersing us in Akha’s rituals and taboos, See reveals that twins are considered a bad omen. Custom requires their father to immediately kill the newborns, even if one is a boy. Furthermore, the parents are then run out of town. Their house and all of their possessions are set on fire—that is the Akha way. As in “Snow Flower,” “Tea” will cause you heartache for unexpected parties. In this case, parents who’ve murdered their children. Once again, by drawing us into her world, See denies us any illusion that we might have behaved any differently under the same circumstances.

“Maybe our lives are like gigantic jigsaw puzzles,” the novel’s female protagonist muses. “You find the right piece and suddenly the whole picture has meaning.” She is the only daughter of a tea-growing family who, after witnessing the murder of newborn twins, begins to question the practice. “The birth of the twins and what happened to them, although traditional, has transformed me as irreversibly as soaking cloth in a vat of dye.” The author’s poetic language allows us to experience the disturbing with a sense of intimacy that we cannot obtain from flat historical records. As a result, “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane” succeeds not only as a unique study of violence, but its remedies. “Rice is to nourish. Tea is to heal.”

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