YA Review: Dragonfly Eyes

This week we’re really pleased to be focusing on Dragonfly Eyes, a new release by Chinese novelist Cao Wenxuan, translated from Chinese by Helen Wang. Today we have the privilege of posting this review by Nanette McGuinness, which was first posted on the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative website as part of their #WorldKidLitWednesday series. Many thanks to GLLI for allowing us to share it with you.

By Nanette McGuinness

Oxymoronic as it may sound, there is an exciting comfort in picking up a book by a beloved author—or, as in Dragonfly Eyes, a beloved, award-winning writer-translator team. What joys, worlds, and experiences lurk within its pages? Will anticipation be tempered by disappointment?

In the case of Dragonfly Eyes, Cao Wenxuan’s new YA historical novel, the answers are: myriad and absolutely not!

A three-generation family saga set mostly in Shanghai but also in Marseilles and inland China, Dragonfly Eyes tells the story of elegant French native Océane and her only granddaughter, mixed-heritage Ah Mei. Told with fascinating detail in episodic chapters, Wenxuan’s lyrical tale visits a definitely non-lyrical time in Chinese history. The narrative spans fifty years, beginning in post-war 1920s and following the fortunes of Océane (Ah Mei’s Nainai) and her family. In the beginning, the family is thriving: they own a silkworm factory and live at the “Blue House.” Over time, though, Nainai’s family is dragged inexorably down by the Cultural Revolution, with food, clothes, coffee, and even basic personal safety scarce. The differences that once made this resilient family special turn to cause for suspicion and racist hatred. Folded into the sweep of history—and its emotional core—is the sweet story of the special relationship between a grandmother and her favorite grandchild.

The best historical fiction brings a past era to life via three-dimensional characters who are so authentic that the reader is tempted to look them up to see if they actually existed. Océane/Nainai, Ah Mei, and their family are fictional, but the characters and the setting are so fully-fleshed that they could well have been real.

And what is the significance of the dragonfly eyes in the title? You’ll have to read this wonderful novel to find out: small, valuable, and rare, they play a crucial role in several pivotal moments.

Dragonfly Eyes
Written by Cao Wenxuan
Translated from the Chinese by Helen Wang
2021, Walker Books (UK)
ISBN: 9781406378252
Candlewick Press (US release, upcoming in 2022)

Interviews with 2016 Hans Christian Andersen Award author Cao Wenxuan: Publishers Weekly; Global Times; IPR License

Interviews with 2017 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation winning translator Helen Wang: SCBWI British Isles; SCBWI Blogspot (my interview); Synsations; Playing by the Book; Books for Keeps

Review (by Avery Fischer-Udagawa) of Wenxuan’s Bronze and Sunflower, shortlisted for the 2018 GLLI YA Translated Book Prize

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Join us again tomorrow as we continue our focus on Dragonfly Eyes as Nanette speaks to translator Helen Wang.