The Bitter Sea by Chung Yee Chong – Reviewed by Guy Portman
Canton, China – 1948 – The matriarch of the influential and wealthy Fu family is the Dowager and it is her birthday celebration that serves as the opening scene for this compelling novel. This annual event is interrupted by the attendance of an unsettling presence in the form of a stranger, who casts an ominous shadow over the proceedings and heralds the start of a series of tragic events that will ultimately lead to the disintegration of the family unit.
In this carefully crafted literary masterpiece the tribulations faced by the Fus act as a microcosm for the monumental changes facing China during this turbulent period in her history. The long civil war is drawing to its inevitable conclusion with Mao Tse-tung’s Communist forces poised to overthrow the Nationalists, led by the ineffectual General Chiang Kai Shek, whose grip on the South of the country is loosening, threatening the traditional fabric of Chinese society with dissolution.
The story follows the Dowager’s three very different sons; the eldest of which is Chuo Kuo, the leader of a political party, desperate to bring peace to his suffering nation. His role as a go-between for the two warring factions allows the reader an insight into the opposing leaders’ very different personalities.
The author successfully employs a descriptive, often melancholic narrative that offers a deep understanding of the fragility of social and political conditions, as the Chinese old order disintegrates and is replaced with an uncertain new era that will irreversibly change the nation forever.