Imagine if you were born and raised in a foreign country by your parents, picking up the native tongue and given a native name by which you were known until you were 6 years old. And then you are sent away to school on a remote mountain in a different part of that vast foreign country. This is what happens to Ming-Mei, or Etta (Henrietta S. Robertson to give her her full name), the main character in In the Land of Paper Gods, born to British missionary parents in China. The novel opens in 1941 and concentrates on Etta’s story between the ages of ten and fifteen.
It would be a wrench for any child to have to leave their parents at such a young age but when the child is a daydreamer with a vivid imagination (which alienates her dorm and class mates), it seems that much harder on the child, and even bordering on cruel. She seems to be particularly struggling, something of a lost child with that feeling of being adrift from her parents, the ties having been cut (or having snapped as they do rather symbolically in the novel). The fact that she goes through various names in the book adds to this sense of vagueness of her character, that she is on the cusp of becoming someone and not set as a person yet: at school, she is Etta to her friends, Henrietta to the teachers and staff, Samantha when she sets up the group of Prophetesses and Ming-Mei again when she encounters the Chinese. You wonder if this little girl will ever find herself, let alone home and her family again.
For a time it is only Etta’s nature and imagination which get her into trouble: the difference between good and bad, and the lines between truth and lies blur and distort as easily as the temples and buildings, the trees and even the people fade in and out and blur on her mystical (and often actually mist-shrouded) mountain. But things take a more serious turn when she tries to befriend a young local girl, and shortly afterwards the outside world and the war raging round about them come to their mountain-side school and force them all to grow up more rapidly.
Mostly told from Etta’s point of view, together with one of her teacher’s brief diary entries, this is a compelling, and haunting coming of age story set in China during the second Sino-Japanese War. My heart ached for Etta, as she tried to find out who she was without the love and guidance of her parents from such an early age, and yet I was also heartened to see someone who went their own way even if it was unpopular or got them into trouble. That doesn’t mean to say that I agree with everything she did but I could understand how it happened, and why. And it made me angry at the parents for sacrificing their children in order to concentrate on their calling as missionaries. This was a thought-provoking read, and one that evoked a lot of emotions. In a Land of Paper Gods will no doubt have me thinking about it for some time to come. It’s a strong debut novel and I’ll be interested to see what the author goes on to write in future.