Oxymoronic as it may sound, there is an exciting comfort in picking up a book by a beloved author—or, as in Dragonfly Eyes, a beloved, award-winning writer-translator team. What joys, worlds, and experiences lurk within its pages? Will anticipation be tempered by disappointment?
In the case of Dragonfly Eyes*, Cao Wenxuan’s new YA historical novel, the answers are: myriad and absolutely not!
A three-generation family saga set mostly in Shanghai but also in Marseilles and inland China, Dragonfly Eyes tells the story of elegant French native Océane and her only granddaughter, mixed-heritage Ah Mei. Told with fascinating detail in episodic chapters, Wenxuan’s lyrical tale visits a definitely non-lyrical time in Chinese history. The narrative spans fifty years, beginning in post-war 1920s and following the fortunes of Océane (Ah Mei’s Nainai) and her family. In the beginning, the family is thriving: they own a silkworm factory and live at the “Blue House.” Over time, though, Nainai’s family is dragged inexorably down by the Cultural Revolution, with food, clothes, coffee, and even basic personal safety scarce. The differences that once made this resilient family special turn to cause for suspicion and racist hatred. Folded into the sweep of history—and its emotional core—is the sweet story of the special relationship between a grandmother and her favorite grandchild.
The best historical fiction brings a past era to life via three-dimensional characters who are so authentic that the reader is tempted to look them up to see if they actually existed. Océane/Nainai, Ah Mei, and their family are fictional, but the characters and the setting are so fully-fleshed that they could well have been real.
And what is the significance of the dragonfly eyes in the title? You’ll have to read this wonderful novel to find out: small, valuable, and rare, they play a crucial role in several pivotal moments.
Written by Cao Wenxuan
Translated from the Chinese by Helen Wang
2021, Walker Books (UK)
Candlewick Press (US release, upcoming in 2022)
Interviews with 2016 Hans Christian Andersen Award author Wenxuan: Publishers Weekly; Global Times; IPR License
Interviews with 2017 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation Translator Wang: SCBWI British Isles; SCBWI Blogspot (my interview); Synsations; Playing by the Book; Books for Keeps
#WorldKidLit Wednesday review (by Avery Fischer-Udagawa) of Wenxuan’s Bronze and Sunflower, shortlisted for the 2018 GLLI YA Translated Book Prize
*Review copy of Dragonfly Eyes kindly provided by the publisher.
Award-winning opera singer Nanette McGuinness is the translator of 50 books and graphic novels for children and adults from French, Italian, German, and Spanish into English, including the well-known Geronimo Stilton Graphic Novels. Two of her recent translations, Luisa: Now and Then and California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas were chosen for YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens; Luisa: Now and Then was also a 2019 Stonewall Honor Book. Her most recent translations are For Justice: The Serge and Beate Klarsfeld Story, The Sisters #7: Lucky Brat, Chloe & Cartoon, Brina the Cat #2: City Cat, and Alter Ego.
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