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Jade Phoenix (2006)

by Syd Goldsmith

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editor March 10th, 2007 07:59 AM PST

From a review by Michael Turton, in The View From Taiwan:

Jade Phoenix, a finalist for a literary prize, is the first novel by former US diplomat Syd Goldsmith. The book is set in Taipei and Washington, DC, during the 1970s, and tells the stories of two disparate men, American student and journalist Nick Malter, and Taiwanese millionaire Ko-sa Ong, who form a deep friendship across vast cultural and political gulfs, and their love for the same woman, Jade Phoenix. The story plays out against the background of the recognition of China, the derecognition of Taiwan, and the rise of the Taiwanese independence movement.

The great strength of Goldsmith's story lies in its rich depiction of the realities of Taiwan during the heyday of KMT rule. Goldsmith, who knows many of the historical persons who appear as characters in the book, both real and fictionalized, is able to leverage his vast knowledge of the island to produce a book that is not only historically informed but also culturally accurate. Angel's discovery that Nick is "cheating" on her, or Ko-sa's demolition of his marriage trying to get a son, are prime examples of the way Goldsmith uses culturally-driven misunderstandings to propel the story.

In many novels of other cultures, one experiences the Other through the eyes of the hero who moves to the exotic culture and brokers the reader's understanding of it. Goldsmith refuses to fall into that trap, for he brings Ko-sa back to the US, so that the reader may experience his own culture as the Other seen through the eyes of Ko-sa. Nor does Goldsmith create an idealized picture of either culture in an attempt to play one off the other - just as Nick suffers injustices and confusions in Taiwan, so does Ko-sa in America.

This is an entertaining and educational book, a magnificent journey into a turbulent time, filled with interesting characters, fascinating history, and told in bluff, rapid prose that never gets in the reader's way. I hope a copy of it finds its way into your hands soon.