By Maureen Tai, 12 March 2022
One of the aspirations of this blog has been to champion authentic, memorable stories set in Asia, about Asian children and young adults, and written by Asian – not Asian diaspora – writers. It is fitting that our 200th review should be of such a book. Blue² (ages 13+) by Hong Kong artist and writer, Luna Orchid,* is one of the most unique and authentic, upper middle grade/young adult, verse novels I’ve ever read. That the author also happens to be a dear friend of mine is, rest assured, not the reason for this review. It is because the honest, oft-times gut-wrenching yet compelling depiction of a teenage girl’s coming-of-age in working class Hong Kong stayed with me like a haunting memory, long after I turned the last page.
Writing about difficult topics, especially for young readers, requires much thought and great skill. Some degree of restraint is necessary, but too much, and it becomes sugar-coating, which is both patronising and a disservice to the ultimate reader. Too much honesty, and the narrative becomes quicksand, sinking those who dare tread in unbearable despair and hopelessness. Because Blue² deals with not one, but several heavy topics – suicide, bulimia, challenging family circumstances and disquieting societal upheavals – each stanza in Blue² is a delicate exercise in maintaining this balance. More often than not, the author succeeds, all the while drawing readers into the nameless protagonist’s world, allowing us to see it through her eyes and experience it with her adolescent mind.
Set in Hong Kong in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s, we meet the narrator as an 11-year-old, at the cusp of puberty. She goes to a Catholic girls school and lives with her working class parents and her three siblings, together but separate, crammed into two small public housing flats. Steeped in Chinese superstition and possibly typical of Chinese families of that era (mine included), the family hardly speaks to one another. As the narrator obsesses over the girth of her thighs and begins to develop unhealthy eating habits, she is naturally unable to share her despair with anyone else, even within her own private journal. In the wake of an unimaginable family tragedy, the already floundering teenager is further propelled into a vortex of guilt and remorse. Over a period of several years, she continues to be mute – although not without an uncommon and wry sense of humour – seemingly defenceless against the changes, both intentional and unintentional, to her body, her family and friends, and her home country. Ultimately, an unlikely friendship brings redemption and freedom to the 17 year-old girl, who, by the end, has healed enough to be able to extend a compassionate hand to someone else in need.
Thoughtfully-observed elements of Hong Kong life are carefully woven into the sparse, lyrical prose of this heartbreaking yet luminous debut novel. Despite the challenging themes, which make this read more suitable for older middle graders and young adults, it is well worth the effort.
* A pen name.