Angel Di Zhang's intensely cinematic debut novel travels from the streets of New York City to northeast China, on the trail of a young photographer who needs to reconcile with her dead mother before she is able to see the world again.
Amy Hilton, born Wu Aimee in the tiny Chinese village of Eternal Spring, has been living and working as a photographer in New York City for so long she’s started to dream in English. When in the fall of 1999 she receives a letter from her sister, written in her birth tongue of Manchu, she needs to take it to a Chinatown produce vendor to get it translated. And so it is this stranger who tells Amy that her mother has died of a broken heart.
Amy blames herself. How could she not? Her mother has never recovered from her oldest daughter leaving her, first for school, then to pursue her art, and finally to marry a white man. Vowing to be there for her mother in death as she hasn't been in life, she books a flight to China. Haunted by the folk stories her mother told her about a shaman's journey to the underworld to retrieve her child, Amy undertakes a quest that strips away all the elements of her new identity, leaving her ready to make amends. But when she finally reunites with her family, things are far different than she remembers, and her loved ones are less than thrilled to welcome their prodigal daughter home.
Interwoven with indelible scenes from Amy's childhood, The Light of Eternal Spring is a tenderly told story about leaving home and returning again, and about forgetting where you come from until you can't forget any longer. Blending playful magical realism with the family balancing acts all immigrants and artists know so well, Angel Di Zhang creates a nuanced portrait of family lost and family found, of the transformative power of art, and of the need to transform yourself in order to make art that's true.
About the author
ANGEL DI ZHANG was born in northeast China, and raised in China, England, Canada and the United States. She was educated in the joint BA-MIA program at Columbia University, and is a painter and an internationally exhibited fine art photographer. She lives in a secret garden near Toronto.
Excerpt: The Light of Eternal Spring (by (author) Angel Di Zhang)
My mother died of a broken heart, or so the letter said.
I was standing before a vegetable stall in Manhattan’s Chinatown, next to eight-for-a-dollar garlic and cabbage by the pound. The old Manchu woman who was translating spoke a broken, heavily accented English. She looked up from her lawn chair, and I stiffened under her gaze. I honestly didn’t know how to feel. Death was an abstract thing for me; I had never been to a funeral.
I choked out the words. “What else does it say?”
“Just that your mother dead.” The old woman thrust the letter back at me and circled two fingers in the air to ward off evil. She turned to a customer who was choosing peppers.
I glanced at the sun, directly overhead, the sky a painful blue unmarred by clouds, then down at the pavement at my translator’s feet, as cracked as her heels in their torn embroidered sandals. Dazed, I lifted my camera from where it hung on a strap at my hip and took a photograph of her feet and the pavement laid with scars.
I fumbled with my purse and removed my wallet, almost dropping it on the ground. I offered her a ten-dollar bill for translating the letter even though she had volunteered to do it for free—a favor because she recognized a fellow Manchu in the shape of my face.
“No!” Her hand clamped on my wrist. “I give bad news. Go away. Your money no good.”
I tried to think through the roaring in my mind. I understood her superstition, but also that she couldn’t make much money selling vegetables on the street. “I want two heads.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Chinese cabbage. Okay.”
“And that.” I pointed to the garlic. “Three dollars’ worth. And that.” I pointed again, to a bundle of spiky fuchsia fruits. All told, I bought Chinese cabbage I didn’t know how to cook, twenty-four heads of garlic, and a pound of a fruit I couldn’t name. It added up to twelve dollars and left me with two heavy bags to tote away. The white plastic stretched to translucence as I picked them up.
The absurdity of it all made me want to drop everything—the groceries, my purse, even my camera—and run through the streets.
Instead, I hobbled to the corner and hailed a cab, bent with a grief I could not process and food I could not eat.
“A luminous treasure of a novel you can’t help but fall into. Di Zhang’s compulsively readable story is at once an exploration of the urgency of artistry and a love letter to immigrant families that will leave you with an enduring sense of hope. I read this book in one sitting, ugly cried and called my mom.” —Vaishnavi Patel, author of Kaikeyi
“This book is magical. Lyrical and surprising, it swept me up and left me gasping in the best of ways. It’s an original and beautiful take on the power of home and family and the pull of the past. Di Zhang has created a modern world flush with enchantment, but the connection between mothers and daughters may be the strongest magic of all. I was completely enthralled.” —Gin Phillips, author of Fierce Kingdom
“The Light of Eternal Spring is a gorgeously lyrical book about the inherent magic in art and family. Each sentence reads as its own poem, its own snapshot of a distinct and enlightening emotional truth. This book is a beautiful tribute to the love between a mother and daughter, and the power in coming home.” —Lynn Steger Strong, author of Flight and Want