Set in modern day Washington DC, What the Zhang Boys Know is a collection of short stories, connected by common threads: the characters all live in the same building of condominiums in a run-down (but up and coming) section of Chinatown, they are lonely, and have suffered loss and disappointment. The Zhang boys are the young children of Fenq-qi Zhang, a widower whose life is turned upside down when his wife is killed in a motor-vehicle accident. While the boys do not know everything that is revealed to the reader, the title is indicative of the special vantage point we are to receive. We will be let on to something that everyone else doesn’t see.
Here’s what I liked about this book: The idea connecting the different lives through separate stories is wonderful. It affords the reader the opportunity to witness the lives and actions of the many characters sometimes in their own words, and sometimes narrated by the author himself. Clifford Garstang presents a novel that is eloquent and vivid in imagery. The prose is outstanding. Here’s an example when Fenq-qi travels to China to escort his father home:
“Gone were the dark gray streets filled with sturdy, bell-ringing bicycles, replaced by broad-avenues and honking cars; gone, too, were the fierce political billboards, overtaken by neon Coca-Cola signs and Golden Arches.”
Here is what disappointed me about this book: I am no prude, but the characters represented are dark, edgy and frankly, disturbing. We are given a view of these people, but we are not allowed to warm to them. For instance – the character Aloysius acts in ways that can infer kindness, but we don’t know why he helps people. Does he feel compassion? Is he attracted to these people? Does it give him a sense of belonging? We’ll never know because Aloysius, like the other characters, don’t really permit us to witness any depth of emotion. Because of this, they remain distant and the reader is only engaged in a very limited way.
I also found the different perspectives weren’t different enough. When a book is narrated by several characters, I would expect the language to differ quite a bit between narratives. This was not the case. If the character development had extended to the language of the storytellers, in addition to adding emotion and personal observation of the people they interact with, I would have been more drawn to these characters. In actuality, I was repelled by them. This is too bad, because it could have been an uplifting tale of humans finding comfort and solace in each other.
3 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2012