Forget Me Not: A Love Story of the East
The book opens with Li Ling receiving a letter in the mail, announcing the death of a woman named Lily. After collapsing into tears, he tells his wife the story of his past.
Li Ling was born in Shanghai, but he moved to Hong Kong to live with his grandparents when he was two. His story begins when, at age nine, he returns to his parents. Unwilling to go, and unable to understand why he must, Li Ling is miserable. The early chapters describe how he gradually accepts his new life and how he meets his two best friends, Big Head and Lily.
Unfortunately, their childhood exploits are cut short by the Cultural Revolution. Li Ling’s father is suspected of being a counterrevolutionary, and Lily’s father is actually taken into custody. The typical coming-of-age story grows dark as school is canceled and the children grow afraid.
While Lily’s actual presence in the novel varies, Li Ling’s love of her provides a central theme in the story of his life under the rule of Chairman Mao. G.X. Chen grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution, so, while this is a fictional story with made-up specifics, the general facts are true, giving a lot of intensity to the story. As Li Ling describes his required reeducation on a farm or the utter hopelessness he feels knowing that he can never change his position in life without the government’s permission, you can actually feel the weight of such a restrictive society. This creates a definite sense of claustrophobia throughout the story. You can feel it in the fact that everyone knows the private affairs of everyone else and in the constant presence of the government. Chen does an astounding job of bringing this world to life.
However, the story is, at its heart, a love story, and the relationship between Li Ling and Lily is beautiful, tender, and heartbreaking. Heavily influenced by the events around them, their story is a tiny microcosm of the country, perfectly expressing the suffering caused by the regime as well as the endurance of the heart.
My only complaint about Forget Me Not is that the language can get a bit stilted, but that is a tiny flaw in a story that expresses (and makes you feel) so much.