By Syd Goldsmith
Published February 2006
Reviewed January 4, 2008
Originally reviewed in: BookReview.com
Syd Goldsmith’s “Jade Phoenix,” is an exemplar of the historical novel: a book that portrays its era with the same detail and sensitivity as the characters that live in it. Its era is that of 1960s-1970s Taiwan, and its characters are two Chinese and an American forced to make a living in a country where one remark can kill and one week creates a decade-long infatuation.
Goldsmith’s characters learn fast what it takes to survive in Taiwan. Ko-sa Ong, once a poor orphan, grows up to be the island’s largest car dealer but is shackled with fear he dishonored his ancestors. Nick Malter, a failed graduate student, moves from studying to reporting in an attempt to understand the inscrutable Chinese mind. Both men are united by doubts, but even more by Jade Phoenix – prostitute daughter of a disgraced general, gifted with unconcealable beauty.
Meeting randomly, the trio finds their lives entwined by a series of commitments that Goldsmith renders with ample detail and emotion. Nick and Ko-sa form a friendship in the suspension of scuba diving – where language and race is irrelevant – and Nick falls helplessly in love with Jade after a week’s tour through the temples and landmarks of Tainan. When financial problems entangle Ko-sa and Jade, Nick extends help without any expectations and shows them his culture with experienced understanding of their outsiders’ dilemma.
The fact that these characters are deep in the fallout of China’s Cultural Revolution only makes it more interesting. Goldsmith’s Taiwan is far less optimistic than American history books would show: not an outpost of freedom but as socially restricted as China, desperately believing their little island can conquer the mainland. When President Nixon breaks the stand-off with China, Ko-sa and Nick experience no joy at a Cold War victory but spite that he also broke decades of United States-Taiwan relations.
And by the time that event comes around, the reader will share their disdain for a political move that ruined the independence hopes of 12 million Taiwanese. They’ll already share Nick’s desire to get deeper into Chinese culture, balanced with Ko-sa’s tension at being born into it. Goldsmith doesn’t bludgeon a reader with these views but lets them develop, clearly familiar with his subject and subtly furthering the connection.
Connection is unquestionably the right word for the feeling “Jade Phoenix” provides, for there is so much information and emotion that a reader will have to see just what happiness Nick, Ko-sa or Jade will find in this life – or the next if Ko-sa’s religious beliefs are correct. Elaborate and emotional, “Jade Phoenix” is as rare and valued as the peace they seek.