A Palace in Peking
A Palace in Peking by Margaret Zee is a story of friendship and love set against the rich background of old China. Daria Krasnova is sent away from home after an interlude with a boy in the back of a car. Her mother’s upcoming remarriage makes Daria too much for her to handle, so she sends Daria to Peking, where she lives with a family distantly connected to her step-family and attends school. One of the young men of the house, David Clierce, befriends her, but their friendship deepens unexpectedly, and this young man becomes someone she will follow to the ends of the earth.
This underappreciated novel is written with a framework that gives it a very classical feel. That, combined with the depictions of characters, who feel almost Dickensian in their idiosyncrasies, though with a definite Chinese bent, also lends it a strong feeling of having descended from literary works. But Daria is no Miss Havisham, for all that Peking has a crumbling feel of old traditions preparing to split apart. All of this works strongly in the book’s favor, creating an intriguing read that will likely appeal to readers who appreciate literary novels.
The greatest strength of this novel is the author’s great passion for the place, the great detail she weaves seamlessly into the storyline, and yet her restraint at not letting her passion for place overshadow the characters. First and foremost, she tells an interesting, character-driven story, and, secondly, she works in Peking and China. With Zee’s obvious interest in Chinese history, Peking in particular, it would have been easy for a less capable author to wander off into the weeds and dump a bunch of information on the reader. Instead, Zee imparts information subtly, giving readers brief, relevant glimpses into Chinese society, carefully layering her story in such a way so that over-informing never becomes an issue. She keeps her story about people, with Peking working a rich backdrop, giving the characters a fully imagined and capably drawn stage to perform their drama.
A Palace in Peking is best described as a sleeper novel, one that is easy to overlook, but one that shouldn’t be, because it is rich and full of many things for readers to enjoy. With its themes of love, loss, belonging, and the experience of the foreigner set against the striking time and place of Peking in the 1930s, this book is surprisingly readable, well-told, and nicely put together, making it a book readers should not ignore.