Book Review: Song by Michelle Jana Chan

Song Cover ImageAbout the Book

Song is just a boy when he sets out from Lishui village in China. Brimming with courage and ambition, he leaves behind his impoverished broken family hoping he’ll make his fortune and return home. Chasing tales of sugarcane, rubber and gold, Song embarks upon a perilous voyage across the globe to the British colony of Guiana, but once there he discovers riches are not so easy to come by and he is forced into labouring as an indentured plantation worker.

This is only the beginning of Song’s remarkable life, but as he finds himself between places and between peoples, and increasingly aware that the circumstances of birth carry more weight than accomplishments or good deeds, Song fears he may live as an outsider forever.

This beautifully written and evocative story spans nearly half a century and half the globe, and though it is set in another century, Song’s story of emigration and the quest for an opportunity to improve his life is timeless.

Format: Hardcover, ebook (464 pp.)    Publisher: Unbound
Published: 28th June 2018                      Genre: Historical Fiction

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Find Song on Goodreads

My Review

I was supposed to have been publishing my review of Song as part of the recent blog tour but due to a mix-up over dates (largely my fault) I wasn’t able to do this.  I’m rectifying that omission now.

Arriving in Guiana, nine-year old Song finds little evidence of the easy fortunes to be made that enticed him to risk his life to travel there.  Instead he finds only punishing labour, harsh cruelty and an existence akin to slavery on a sugarcane plantation.  By a stroke of good fortune, Song is taken under the wing of Father Holmes who teaches him to read and write and introduces Song to the love of books and reading.  Not everyone agrees with Father Holmes’ decision to educate a ‘houseboy’ but Father Holmes robustly defends his actions.  “Reading changes everything.  Writing will give him a step up.  Whatever Song chooses to do in life he’ll do it better with a pen or book in his hand.” (Who could disagree with that?)  Together Song and Father Holmes form a close bond, sharing a mutual interest in documenting the native birds of Guiana.

A trip ‘upriver’ with Father Holmes gives Song a possible new direction in life. However, it’s one that is not without danger.  When a shocking act of betrayal and violence occurs, it results in a desperate act that will haunt Song for years afterwards.  It also illustrates the lure of gold which, like a fever, infects the so-called ‘pork-knockers’ who set out to make their fortunes.

As Song sets out to achieve the life objectives he has set himself, he faces discrimination and injustice.  This reader certainly gave a little cheer as Song begins to fight back against the forces of the “old boys’ network” he finds ranged against him. However, along the way, he is forced to make difficult and at times questionable moral choices.

Song is clever, resourceful and mindful of the advice he receives from the influential figures in his life: Father Holmes (a wonderful warm and humane character); his shipmate on the terrible voyage to Guiana, Li Bai; and mining engineer, Mr Leigh.  He also benefits from the wisdom of several women – Jingy, Josie, Amalia – with their ability to read a situation.

I’m always drawn to descriptions of food in books and there are some great ones in Song that really bring to life the atmosphere of Georgetown.  ‘There were baked chicken legs in molasses; chicken wings in forest honey; bass with onion and ginger; cauldrons of pepper pot; rice coloured with strands of saffron; blackened barbecue pork; potato and pea curry with turmeric, and dozen dishes of stewed okra and fried tomatoes.’

A repeated theme of the book is the importance of living a life that is ‘a story worth telling’.  Song’s life is definitely a story worth telling.   Song is a wonderful tale of survival, friendship, courage and triumph over adversity.  It also has at its heart a tender and heart-warming love story.   Michelle, you had me in tears at the end.

I received a review copy courtesy of publishers, Unbound, and Random Things Tours, in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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In three words: Compelling, emotional, uplifting

Try something similar…The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (read my review here)

Michelle Chan Author PictureAbout the Author

Michelle Jana Chan is an award-winning journalist and travel editor of Vanity Fair. She’s also contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveller, presenter of the BBC’s Global Guide and a writer for the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and Travel & Leisure. Michelle has been named the Travel Media Awards’ Travel Writer of the Year. She was a Morehead-Cain scholar at the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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