cover image Forbidden City

Forbidden City

Vanessa Hua. Ballantine, $28 (368p) ISBN 978-0-399-17881-8

Hua’s provocative latest (after A River of Stars) follows a bold and shrewd woman as she navigates China’s political scene amid the Cultural Revolution. Mei Xiang is almost 16 when she trades a long-kept secret for a place in Chairman Mao’s troupe—an excellent opportunity to serve the party’s interests while escaping a dull, inevitable life filled with field work and famine. Her ambition and dreams of becoming a model revolutionary help her catch the Chairman’s eye and keep him interested long enough to incite the jealousy of the other recruits and even of his wife, long accustomed to turning a blind eye to her husband’s many indiscretions. At first, Mei relishes being the Chairman’s lover, his confidant, and even his pawn in the schemes he orchestrates to triumph over his political rivals. But eventually, she sees the deceit in their relationship and understands heroes aren’t always what they seem (“He had rewritten my history. To be everything to everyone, I’d become no one,” she reflects). Hua masterly presents Mei’s attempts to leave the Lake Palaces with their “power, secrecy, and isolation” behind as she processes her trauma. This finds a brilliant new perspective on familiar material via its story of a young woman’s brush with power. It’s magnificent. Agent: Margaret Sutherland Brown, Folio Literary Management. (Apr.)