In an effort to learn the secrets of the West, China sent a group of boys to America to be educated. This was following their defeat in the two Opium...moreIn an effort to learn the secrets of the West, China sent a group of boys to America to be educated. This was following their defeat in the two Opium Wars in 1872. Seven-year-old Chen Mu was one of the boys sent to America; but at nine he fled to Umberumberka, a mining town in outback Australia. The Yellow Papers is a story of love, obsession and friendship set against a backdrop of war and racial prejudice.
The title refers to a Chinese tradition of determining a soul is at rest; this involves a priest determining if the death fell on a lucky day or not as well as performing some rituals. I couldn’t find much information about this process but the book suggests that the family is given yellow papers to indicate the soul is at rest. Also it may be interesting to note that the colour yellow is considered lucky in Chinese culture but Westerners use it as a racial slur. You might think this information would be useful and paid a big part in the novel, especially when it comes to tackling racism, but it doesn’t.
One of my major gripes with the novel is the fact that it attempts to look at a subject but ends up just glossing over it. The Yellow Papers tries to be a big sweeping historical epic but compact into 300 pages. This means that there are huge gaps that we have to fill in for ourselves and while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing it does detach the reader from the novel. The novel could go into detail about racism, culture clashing, even the Opium Wars but this book avoids dealing with these subjects in great detail.
While The Yellow Papers is essentially the story of Chen Mu, this book is broken into three parts that shifts into different focalisation. Chen Mu, Edward and Ming Li are the primary focus on the three parts. While Chen Mu is not a well-developed character by any count, Edward and Ming Li’s development fell flat. Both characters are two dimensional with no real indication on personality or motivation. This causes The Yellow Papers to start off well but plateaued out a third of the way through the novel.
There is some beauty within the text; some of the syntax reviews great imagery. While Dominique Wilson never really gives us much to do with scenery, the discourse is often very revealing. “Since that evening the thought that she could not love him had festered like a cancer in his belly.” This sentence hit me pretty hard; the idea of not being love and cancer being used in the same sentence, an idea that suggests being unloved is both unwanted and weighed heavily on him. Sentences like this are found throughout the novel and what saved this book from abandonment.
I wasn’t happy with The Yellow Papers at all and while I see some beauty in Dominique Wilson’s writing, I think she needed to flesh this one out a lot more. It is her first novel and I’m sure she learnt from writing it; her next novel will really determine my opinion of her style. As I’ve said, I found beauty in the syntax, enough to try her again.