A couple of days before I went on holiday, I decided I needed to top up my Kindle with some holiday reading. Having downloaded young adult novel The Ventriloquist’s Daughter, I accidentally finished it before we even got on the plane!
The Ventriloquist’s Daughter is by Man-Chiu Lin, translated from the Chinese by Helen Wang (Balestier Press, 2017)
Reviewed by Claire Storey
The story tells of Liur who grows up living with her Mama, Baba and paternal grandparents. The first years of her life are happy with time spent with her parents in the forest at the back of her house. But her parents are under pressure: her father to pursue a career in medicine he isn’t interested in and her mother to produce a son. I really felt for Liur as she is repeatedly told: “If only you were a boy!”
When Liur is four, Mama finally falls pregnant. But Ah Fen, the housekeeper, tells Liur: “When your little brother is born, no one will love you anymore.” In Liur’s mind, the terror of being replaced begins to grow and she begins to play up, trying to attract her parents’ attention. Then Mama has a miscarriage, Liur feels the threat has gone, but life doesn’t return to normal. This section is so well-written; I could really feel Liur’s despair: “[Mama’s] mind was so full of the son who had died. She couldn’t see the daughter who was alive and in front of her eyes.”
A while later, Mama becomes ill and dies. Baba is distraught and overcome with grief. To bring him out of it, Grandfather sends Baba to the USA on a training course, leaving solitary Liur at home with her grandparents. Instead of attending the training course, Baba goes travelling, starting in the USA and heading south through Latin America. Every so often, he sends a postcard to Liur which she cherishes, waiting for him to return.
When Baba does finally return 5 years later, he brings with him a doll called Carola. But Carola isn’t just a doll, she is his ventriloquist’s dummy. While he has been away, he has learnt the craft of ventriloquism and has created a stage persona called Carolo. While initially intrigued by her father’s new talent and his doll, Carola begins to come to life. Liur believes Carola will do anything to destroy Liur and become Carolo’s real daughter.
The writing in this section of the book is really vivid and Liur’s fear of Carola feels very real. It is only revealed later on that Liur is struggling with her perception of reality. Deep within her, she carries the secret guilt that it was her that caused her mother to fall, lose the baby and ultimately die. The feelings she has harboured about being replaced she now projects onto Carola. It is only once she admits this feeling of guilt and self-hatred that she can begin to unravel it, learning the truth of why her mother miscarried and passed away, neither of which had anything to do with little Liur’s actions. By letting go of this, she reconciles with her father and the book has a really positive ending.
I actually had to go back and read the ending a second time because I was so convinced that what Liur had been telling of the doll was true, that Carola was coming to life and trying to kill her, indeed playing with my own perception of reality.
This is a real page turner, and I was hooked from the start.
Man-Chiu Lin is a well-known children’s author in Taiwan who has published a number of successful YA novels as well as non-fiction titles. In Taiwan, she received the Golden Tripod Award for children’s fiction in 2003 and the “Good Books Everyone Can Read” Award for the best children’s book of 2010. ‘The Ventriloquist’s Daughter’ was long-listed for the 2014 Found in Translation Award and subsequently selected for the Found in Translation Anthology.
Helen Wang is Curator of East Asian Money at the British Museum, and a literary translator working from Chinese to English. Her translations for children include Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan, Jackal and Wolf by Shen Shixi, Pai Hua Zi and the Clever Girl by Zhang Xinxin, and Tan Hou and the Double Sixth Festival by Cai Gao. She has also translated short stories by a wide range of Chinese authors.