Lake Union Publishing, October 27, 2015.
The Palest Ink is the prequel to Bratt’s previously published series, Tales of the Scavenger’s Daughters. While I thought it made sense to read the prequel first (I also have the first in the series, The Scavenger’s Daughters, on my shelf), I do feel like I missed out on the emotional connection that others had with this book. Instead of learning the backstory of already-beloved characters, I am only entering into these character’s lives, and so it took me longer to feel anything for the characters.
The novel is set in Shanghai in the 1960s, as the Cultural Revolution invaded China, and Mao’s Red Guard staged an attack on their own citizens, especially the upperclass intellectuals. Benfu is from one of these wealthy families, while his best friend, Pony Boy, is not. As these two come of age during the course of the revolution, their different backgrounds are used to contrast two very different socioeconomic situations taking place in the same city.
Benfu is raised in a very traditional family, with an arranged marriage on the horizon. He is taught never to question his parents or his country, although he continues to do so secretly. Benfu is young and his world view is naïve, perhaps too much so for an adult novel. I think this book would be successful with a younger audience, as it is missing some important depth of feeling, as well as more sophisticated character development. The characters are multi-dimensional, and they certainly do more than just further the plot, but I still think they could have been developed much further. Perhaps the rest of the series focuses more on character and growth, as the protagonist ages and begins a family of his own.
The title of the novel comes from a Chinese proverb, “the palest ink is better than the best memory.” (Loc. 97) While Mao and his army attempted to discourage intellectual discourse and literature, Benfu and Pony Boy start a newsletter to record the atrocities going on around them. Much of the younger generation was brainwashed into believing that Mao was doing what was best for the people, but Benfu and Pony Boy chose to fight this belief through their writing. They called their newsletter “a tiny drop of truth in an enormous barrel of unjustness.” (Loc. 3986) Memories change over time, but a written account will be accurately remembered for the future.
The boys’ plan to expose Mao and his Guard was an ambitious one, and although the novel was working towards a climax, it didn’t really follow through. It was not as compelling as I originally thought it would be, and I started to lose interest about halfway through. The details of setting and environment were a redeeming quality for the book, although the story got a bit lost in the reliance on rich historical details. For the most part, I enjoyed Benfu’s story, and I am still deciding whether I will carry on with the rest of the series.