BOOK REVIEW: Green Island

BOOK REVIEW: Green Island
Photo Credit:Taiwan under Japanese rulePublic Domain

What you need to know

A review of Shawna Yang Ryan's 'Green Island.'

This powerful novel illuminates the dictatorship which Chiang Kai-shek (蔣中正) and his son Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) established on Taiwan from 1945 until 1988. This dictatorship, colonial in nature, systematically discriminated against native Taiwanese. The Taiwanese father of the narrator, a doctor, makes a speech on Feb. 28, 1947, the start of a famous democratic movement in Taiwan, during which Chiang Kai-shek brutally suppressed killing as many as 30,000 of Taiwan’s intellectuals and youth. The narrator’s father is arrested and disappears for eleven years. The narrator, a girl born the next day on March 1, 1947, tells us much about the regime which killed, imprisoned, tortured and threatened countless Taiwanese.

After the arrest and disappearance of her father, the regime takes over their house and clinic in Taipei. The narrator’s mother burns almost everything and takes her children to Taichung to live with her parents. The family becomes quite complex with the elder sister marrying a "Mainlander," the elder brother becoming a military officer (who writes reports about his father after the latter returns home) and another brother who appears to be a ne'er-do-well.

After a short courtship, the narrator marries a Taiwanese physics professor at the University of California and moves to Berkeley where she has two daughters. Her husband is a Taiwanese political activist and her reluctant, involuntary participation in the Taiwanese political struggle results in her being compromised by agents of the government. I do not want to give the plot away, but I can state that the novel demonstrates that the Chiang regime put families and marriages under severe stress, even in the United States where its agents were also active.

As noted in the first sentence, Green Island is powerful. For the first time in my life, I had to takes breaks from reading a novel because Green Island was too overwhelming and brought too many deep emotions to the surface. Even though the narrative sparked my interest, as one who has lived through many of these events (and as one who is mentioned on p. 329), I found that I needed occasional breaks before I was able to continue reading.

This reviewer, now in his early seventies, is just a few years older than the narrator. I find it remarkable that the author, who is considerably younger, could create such a convincing book about people considerably older than she is and about an authoritarian place that she never visited.

The book ends in 2003 when the narrator has returned to Taiwan to visit her dying mother in the hospital. Despite this now being the democratic period under Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), the SARS epidemic is occurring and the government has placed strong quarantines on several hospitals, including the one where her dying mother is being treated and the narrator and her father are visiting. On several occasions the narrator uses such words as “prisoner” and “prison” to describe their situation. Ironically, it is only now that the narrator’s father tells her a little of his experience in prison five decades previously.

As noted above, the writing in Green Island is truly excellent. I would like to conclude with two quotes that struck me as erudite. First, in the aftermath of the February 28, 1947 shooting, the narrator’s father thinks, “A massacre may incur silence, but a random shooting inspires ardor” (p. 18). And, at the end, the author gives a good definition of a nation: “Maybe this is what it meant to be a citizen of a place — bonded to each other by the histories thrust upon us” (p. 378). This is an excellent definition of a nation — and of Taiwan.

In addition to Green Island, readers might enjoy another excellent novel by a young American female author with Taiwanese ancestry, which also begins in Taiwan during the 1940s, describes the February 28 movement from a personal perspective and then goes to the United States — The Third Son by Julie Wu (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2014).

Those with interests in Taiwan and its history should read Green Island. Many congratulations to its fine young author!

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White