My thanks to Pushkin Press and NetGalley for a review copy of the book.
In The Family Chao, author Lan Samantha Chang gives us a retelling of The Brothers Karamazov but by setting it amongst a Chinese-American immigrant family, she weaves in further complexities of discrimination and prejudice and also of identity and belonging.
Leo and Winnie Chao are immigrants in a small town, Haven, in Wisconsin, and run a Chinese restaurant Fine Chao. They have three sons, William ‘Daggo’, Ming, and James, all good-looking but very different from each other in personality. Leo Chao is domineering and cruel, never giving up any opportunity of bullying his wife and sons, and also engaging in any amount of cheating and manipulation, little liked even amongst the immigrant community. The Chaos have been living in Haven for thirty years, but the three boys are always treated as outsiders, facing finger-pointing and name-calling, besides grappling with their father’s almost incessant torments. Dagou, the eldest has tried to make a career in music and failed, and has returned to the restaurant where he started working when his mother fell ill but stayed on. Ming tries his best to have as little connection with the town and family and even his identity, building a high-flying career for himself in New York, while the youngest James is in college—with ambitions to be a doctor.
When our story opens, James and Ming have come home for a special luncheon at the spiritual house, where Winnie has moved and taken vows some months ago, having given up her worldly possessions. We find that Dagou wants to confront his father who had promised him partnership in the restaurant but has now reneged on his word. Unpleasant words are exchanged, and Dagou voices threats. Soon the annual Christmas Party takes places at the restaurant for family and friends. For his mother, Dagou puts together the best party he possibly can. But the next morning Leo Chao is found dead—locked in the restaurant’s freezer room. Dagou, whose animosity towards and threats against his father were known by everyone, is arrested and tried. At the trial, however, more than the crime itself, issues of community and identity and prejudice are at the centre, and rumours run rife. As we navigate the trial and the family’s attempts to clear Dagou’s name, many secrets are revealed while there is also the mystery of who actually killed Leo.
This was a gripping and highly readable book; while I didn’t quite remember all the details of the Brothers Karamazov, I could see that the author has used the broad frame of the story with a manipulative and cruel father who shares a tempestuous relationship with his sons, and who is murdered, with suspicion thrown on the eldest. The personalities of the three brothers too, so far as I can remember do reflect the three Karamazovs (I only specifically remembered the oldest being strong in his emotions and giving vent to his passions, while the youngest Alyosha, the monk, believing the best of everyone).
But within this frame, she has given the three brothers individual personalities defined by more than the elements from the Karamazovs. Ming is perhaps the one we get to see most closely; he is so deeply impacted by the prejudice and discrimination all his life, that his sole aim seems to cut every tie with his identity; hating it so much that he feels cutting himself off will somehow make him something different than what he is (considering that he is otherwise intelligent, this seems irrational, yet one can perhaps understand a little). In fact, even overall, while the story might follow the broad structure of the Karamazovs, issues of discrimination and race add a further layer of depth to it, reflecting very much a kind of scenario that we would likely see in such a situation in present times—with elements of insider/outsider views; the web generating debate and comments; and every person expressing a loud view, notwithstanding how much they really know or understand. These aspects—the struggles that immigrants families have to undergo every day, the prejudice they have to face in the event of a situation like this one was excellently portrayed.
The mystery thread in the story also kept me engaged; I had honestly forgotten the answer from the Karamazovs so couldn’t really make any guesses as to whether this book would follow the same path or how it would turn out. There are also plenty of secrets and revelations all through with a few additional threads thrown in (which are also woven into the trial) which kept me reading.
I enjoyed the book overall, and my complaint if any was with the ending in terms of threads that are left for us to interpret. There are more than one way some things can go, and with the characters and circumstances as they were I felt I couldn’t make up my mind as to how things would actually turn out. The ambiguity made me feel a bit unsatisfied.
But an excellent retelling overall—4.25 stars!