Janie Chang’s second novel is a remarkable read, brimming with magic and the grit of realism. According to a blog post, the author originally intended to write the story of a real-life Cinderella, Luo Jialing, a half-French Shanghai girl who sold sexual favours and flowers to survive until she married a wealthy man. It is a relief that Chang replaced an idealistic, romanticized narrative with a story rooted in hardship, hope, and questions of belonging.
Set in Shanghai at the turn of the 20th century, Dragon Springs Road traces the journey of seven-year-old Jialing, who is abandoned by her mother in the courtyard of a sprawling estate. Taken in as a bond servant by the Yang family, the estate owners, Jialing forms a friendship with the eldest daughter Anjuin, and befriends Fox, a spirit who has been haunting the courtyard for centuries.
It might be easier for Jialing to accept her fate as a victim, but instead she transforms her pain into a tireless quest to find her long-lost mother. As a Eurasian, Jialing is a minority within her own community, occupying the liminal space between foreign and familiar. From her questionable parentage to her questionable looks, she is never truly accepted by her peers or chosen family. Her search for belonging is undermined by her appearance, and like her fate, it is something she cannot rid herself of.
Chang masterfully weaves historical facts about Eurasian women with myth, creating “the real in the unreal, and the unreal in the real” and blurring the boundaries between historical fiction and magical realism.
Family honour and loyalty lay the foundation for Dragon Springs Road; each character must balance obligation and tradition with their own desires. It is impossible not to see the parallels with our world today: unstable politics, class divisions, privilege and lack thereof – and the frequent consequences of these things for women.
While there are strong male characters in the book, the women take precedence. Chang is skilful in addressing power dynamics, from the cook whose influence derives from the fact that she hears everything that goes on in the household to Grandmother Yang, the family matriarch, whose power is rooted in custom and belief, and cannot be questioned. Jialing, however, is tied to the fortunes and privilege of others. If they eat, she eats. She knows this, and makes it her life’s mission to free herself from dependence – if not physically, at least emotionally. In a similar vein, the mistresses and servants on the estate are driven by a need to survive, finding ways to be resourceful and indispensable to ensure their positions are permanent and irrevocable. The Yang women are bound by Grandmother Yang’s unyielding drive to preserving chastity and respect.
The most intriguing character in Dragon Springs Road is Fox. While Fox is a mythical shape-shifting trickster, she is also a female with wounds, who, like Jialing, seeks wholeness. Chang’s refreshing take on the trickster trope asserts that even supernatural spirits have their limitations, and it is the will of humans that determines their fates. The relationship between Jialing and Fox is one of give and take, sacrifice and loyalty, submission and self-determination. Fox and Jialing hold up mirrors to each other, reflecting and refracting each other’s experiences. Chang’s poetic descriptions of Fox’s journeys are haunting and hypnotic, drawing the reader closer with each detail.
Chang’s narrative holds suffering in one hand and redemption in the other, allowing both to exist simultaneously. The characters experience unfathomable challenges while savouring moments of simple joy, whether it’s a hot meal or an unexpected gesture of kindness. While the narrative offers moments of reprieve and magical intervention, there is no deus ex machina in the conclusion. Characters must endure their fates with courage and grace, however unfair those fates might be.
While Dragon Springs Road provides an evocative cross-section of history, it is also a coming-of-age tale. It is a testament to the valour of women shunned by society, who have their destiny tangled up with that of those who control them. With this novel, Chang asserts herself as an exciting, relatable voice in Canadian fiction, a voice that requires us to re-examine our relationship to place, identity, and ancestry. While Jialing’s story unravels at the turn of the century, it is, without a doubt, a story for our times.