book review: Diamond Head

diamond head

Diamond Head By Cecily Wong.
Harper| April 2015|256 pages |$25.99| ISBN: 978-0-062345431

Rating: ****/5*

Are we fated to experience what we do or do we choose what we do? That’s the question at the heart of the gorgeous novel Diamond Head. Author Cecily Wong’s debut novel takes you from China to Hawaii to document a family’s rise to power in Hawaii. At the turn of the 20th century, wealthy shipping industrialist Frank Leong relocates his family from China to the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Diamond Head mixes triumphs and tragedy in a multigenerational Chinese family that moves to Hawaii. In China, there’s a fable that a red string connects you to your destined partner, your perfect match. The fated red string can also be destructive and prevent happiness by knotting and twisting and hurt future generations. Sometimes the red string isn’t someone’s destiny. It’s not a good match. Diamond Head illuminates Chinese mysticism as well as individuality and contentment that we all seek.

Wong sets the novel in 1960s Hawaii and early 1900s China. After her father’s murdered in 1964 in Hawaii grand-daughter Theresa Leong begins to unravel her family’s history and a monumental secret her mother Amy kept for years. It’s up to her to keep her family together. Of her mom, Theresa says: “My mom spent and saved her words like gold, like precious stones, playing them strategically, saving some for difficult times to secure a certain outcome. The modification of words, of feelings and experiences, were simply tools that she hoped might pry her from the life that she was born into.” Amy: “My husband. Another word that inflicted so much pain. How stupid had I turned out to be? How pathetic? I’d sold my life to a man panicked by his own voice, a man with no friends, with no life of his own I thought of a lifetime with Bohai—his slow words, his tidy bed, his wire glasses—and I began to panic.”

“This was not fate, I told myself: it was the furthest thing from it. This pain was intimate, deeply, sickeningly personal, and as I closed my eyes and lowered myself to the ground. I knew that it had all been created. The tangles from one generation to the next, the mistakes passed from mother to daughter, the lies from father to son—it wasn’t fate, who would call that fate? These things were within our control, outcomes not linked to our flesh, and all of us, every single one of us, had played a hand in this destiny.”

When they start having difficulties with their son Bohai in China, Lin thinks: “As days passed and my son remained unchanged, I felt my failure swell and multiply. There was a voice, one I had silenced for many years, that now whispered to me at all times of the day. You are unworthy of this life, it said. It was all a mistake.” Destruction of family and business and bonds and healing that allow one to move forward. There’s plenty of detail and sense of place for the flow back and forth in time to work. Wong constructs place beautifully writing about the scenery and political battles for the Chinese (The Boxer Rebellion) and then the immigrant experience in Hawaii. Filled with page-turning secrets, deception and the genuine price of power and the risks of privilege. If you like Amy Tam and Lisa See this is the type of novel for you with deep layers and a complex familial story and a dark secret that might ruin everything this family built.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

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