Book Review - Our Lady of Kaifeng, Part 1, Vol. 1 by Aya Katz
In Aya Katz’s newest novel, Our Lady of Kaifeng, the first volume in a two volume series, any reader purchasing this book is in for massive surprises and delights of the mind. The historical precision of this novel is a breathtaking backdrop to distinguished storytelling and luxuriant prose in abundance throughout this masterpiece. Aya has not missed one detail of historical nuance in telling a tale that both entertains and educates the reader within this important time in history, that so few know much about.
As the author transports readers back to 1941, during the Japanese occupation of Kaifeng, Henan Province in China (one of the seven ancient capitals of China), and the days before the United States and Japan are at war, her setting revolves around a multifaceted unrequited love story, totally emerged in mysteries of individual religious worship; mysteries surrounding the Jews of Kaifeng; learning and teaching styles; what is friendship; and hints as to why the female of the species is more deadly than the male.
Culturally, some of Aya Katz’s exacting characters reveal centuries of ingrained Chinese mindset. Each character in Our Lady of Kaifeng oozes their own essence of exquisite detail not only found in their descriptions, but in their exchanges of dialog with each other. In one passage when, Lotus, a young student of sixteen (who is secretly a married woman with a child and unhappy with her lot in life as a mother of a daughter) says:
“I do not like my daughter.” Marah was so shocked that she was speechless for a moment. But Lotus added: “Because she is a girl.”
Marah snorted, “But you are a girl, too.”
Upon reading that passage my own mind couldn’t help but go back to an excerpt of ancient Chinese poem by Fu Hsiian (b.217 d. 278) titled Woman:
How sad it is to be a woman!
Nothing on earth is held so cheap.
Boys stand leaning at the door
Like Gods fallen out of Heaven.
Their hearts brave the Four Oceans,
The wind and dust of a thousand miles.
No one is glad when a girl is born:
By her the family sets no store.
Since this is a World War II era story, some readers may not understand that this underlying cultural bias is as relevant to the story then, as it is to the plight of women today. As modern as this world is now, not everything has changed culturally in China, especially for women. Biases are among the slowest turtles of change. My own Chinese daughter-in-law, when I asked her a few years ago upon learning she was pregnant, “Do you want a boy or a girl?” Replied in her limited English:
“Mommy, I do not want girl. No one wants girl. It is too hard to be a girl. Everyone only love baby boys.”
This is one single underlying story line in Our Lady of Kaifeng, but just one of many examples that could be given as to why this book should be required reading in women’s studies and exemplifies the thought provoking subplots and themes that lie within this superbly written treasure of fiction.
The core unrequited love story found in this book is one that would thrill the hearts of any romance novel reader, even though Our Lady of Kaifeng could not easily be classified as a solely a historical romance novel. It’s not just a love story by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not just for women.
Delving further into this novel, there are just so many layers of intrigue and thought provoking concepts. This book cannot be put down without the reader crying for more. Here’s just one example of how the expert voice of the author rings so very true when she points out the difference between contentment and aspiration, ideas that we all should be internalizing:
“There are those who belong to us, and we long for them as we long for home. There are those who are so far above us as to never be ours, and we love them with an aspirational love – the love reserved for gods and demons, not for flesh and blood.
The main character, Marah, an unmarried American school teacher, a virgin yet a mother, a spirited teacher with a mind of her own -- is a woman filled with contradictions, secrets and rebellious values and ideas. Like all the other characters in this novel, she is someone you won’t forget once you are introduced to her.
Then comes along another subplot interwoven into this wonderful World War II story, that which revolves around the difference between learning and studying. Marah expects her students to think for themselves. In contrast, her students expect to be handed material to simply memorize. That speaks to another almost unconscious Chinese cultural group mindset in education. Even today, many Chinese students spend enormous time memorizing rather than analyzing their course work in the early grades. When Marah realizes that her students have collectively memorized separate parts of lengthy passages of business law without any understanding of what had been originally asked of them, the author’s expert pen explains:
“Standing there dumbfounded, with all the other girls staring at her, Marah began to consider the possibility that she wasn’t a very good teacher after all. It was just as shocking a revelation as the day she had learned, many years earlier, that she was not pretty.”
A little farther along she writes:
“Learning is something each of us does alone. We cannot learn for another person, any more than we can breathe for one another.”
There is mystery and intrigue swirling around all this, especially when it comes to the Jews of Kaifeng and another character, Father Horvath, with his obsession to unraveling the secrets of their ancient scrolls. Marah cannot escape his constant badgering her to help him decipher these ancient texts and speculating what their existence would mean to a Christian world.
For those of you who aren’t aware of the Kaifeng Jews – this is an ancient settlement that has been in Kaifeng at least from 960-112 AD and probably longer than that. Kaifeng, located along the Silk Road was by the year 1200 AD the largest city in the world.. Over time the Kaifeng Jews assimilated with the native Chinese.
Finally, the setting of a Catholic school for girls is still another splendid stage for the story’s marriage of Catholic doctrine and Chinese educational practices. Since the main character is a woman of somewhat rebellious substance to the core of her being, this first volume of Our Lady of Kaifeng speaks its own volumes on the subjects of conflicts in teaching ideas from all sides of the issues, that of the student, that of the teacher, and that of Sister Joseph who oversees the curriculum of Catholic mindset.
Our Lady of Kaifeng, Part 1 – Volume 1 ends dramatically in December of 1941 when Japan and the United States are officially at war. The climax left me breathless and anxiously awaiting Part 2. This is one book everyone should be reading and giving as a gift to their friends.