How amazing is this cover?!! I couldn’t resist it so I’m happy to close the blog tour for Song by Michelle Jana Chan with an extract.
Opening in the mid-nineteenth-century, this dazzling debut novel traces the voyage of Song, a boy who leaves his impoverished family in rural China to seek his fortune. Song may have survived the perilous journey to the colony of British Guiana in the Caribbean, but once there he discovers riches are hard to come by, as he finds himself working as an indentured plantation worker.
Between places, between peoples, and increasingly aware that circumstances of birth carry more weight than accomplishments or good deeds, Song fears he may live as an outsider forever. This is a far-reaching and atmospheric story spanning nearly half a century and half the globe, and though it is set in the past, Song’s story of emigration and the quest for opportunity is, in many ways, a very contemporary tale.
Lishui Village, China, 1878At first they were glad the rains came early. They had already finished their planting and the seedlings were beginning to push through. The men and women of Lishui straightened their backs, buckled from years of labouring, led the buffalo away and waited for the fields to turn green. With such early rains there might be three rice harvests if the weather continued to be clement. But they quickly lost hope of that the sun did not emerge to bronze the crop. Instead the clouds hung heavy. More rain beat down upon an already sodden earth and lakes were born where even the old people said they could not remember seeing standing water. The Li rose higher and higher. Every morning the men of the village walked to the river to watch the water lap at its banks like flames. Sometimes they stood there for hours, their faces as grey as the at slate light. Still the rain fell, yet no one cared about their clothes becoming wet or the nagging coughs the chill brought on. Occasionally a man lifted his arm to wipe his face. But mostly they stood still like figures in a painting, staring upstream, watching the water barrel down, bulging under its own mass.
Before the end of the week the Li had spilled over its banks. A few days later the water had covered the footpaths and cart tracks, spreading like a tide across the land and sweeping away all the new shoots of newly planted rice. Further upstream the river broke up carts, bamboo bridges and outbuildings; it knocked over vats of clean water and seeped beneath the doors of homes. Carried on its swirling currents were splintered planks of wood, rotting food, and shreds of sacking and rattan. Song awoke to feel the straw mat wet beneath him. He reached out his hand. e water was gently rising and ebbing as if it was breathing. His brother Xiao Bo was crying in his sleep. The little boy had rolled off his mat and was lying curled up in the water. He was hugging his knees as if to stop himself from floating away.
Song’s father was not home yet. He and the other men had been working through the night trying to raise walls of mud and rein back the river’s strength. But the earthen barriers washed away even as they built them; they could only watch, hunched over their shovels. The men did not return that day. As the hours passed the women grew anxious. They stopped by each other’s homes, asking for news, but nobody had anything to say. Song’s mother Zhang Je was short with the children. The little ones whimpered, sensing something was wrong.
Song huddled low with his sisters and brothers around the smoking re which sizzled and spat but gave o no heat. They had wedged among the rewood an iron bowl but the rice inside was not warming. at was all they had le to eat now. Xiao Wan curled up closer to Song. His little brother followed him every- where nowadays. His sisters Xiao Mei and San San sat opposite him, adding wet wood to the re and poking at the ash with a stick. His mother stood in the doorway, the silhouette of Xiao Bo strapped to her back and her large rounded stomach tight with child.
The children dipped their hands into the bowl, squeezing grains of rice together, careful not to take more than their share. Song was trying to feed Xiao Wan but he was too weak even to swallow. e little boy closed his eyes and rested his head in Song’s lap, wheezing with each breath. Their mother continued to look out towards the fields, waiting, with Xiao Bo’s head slumped unnaturally to the side as he slept.
‘I don’t think they’re coming back.’
Song could barely hear what his mother was saying.
‘They’re too late,’ she muttered.
Song wasn’t sure if she was talking to him. ‘
Her voice was more brisk. ‘They’re not coming back, I said.’
Song didn’t reply. He looked across at his sisters, who were continuing to push squashed grains of cold rice into their mouths. Song’s breathing quickened, losing its rhythm. He felt his body tighten. Lying across Song’s lap, Xiao Wan woke up and started to cry.
That night Song slept on the wet woven matting between his sisters and brothers, and dreamed of a place far away which resembled land but in fact was a gigantic lake whose surface was covered in broken rice shoots. At first it seemed beautiful. But then in Song’s mind he saw the bloated bodies floating face up and staring wide- eyed at something beyond the cloudless blue sky.
Song woke with a jolt and tried to shut out the image. He pressed himself closer against the bodies of Xiao Wan and San San. their skin was cold. Song reached his arm across San San’s waist and realised how thin she had become. He could hear Xiao Bo moaning in his sleep. Song stared up at the underside of the roof above him. In the darkness he could just make out the curves and ridges of the pottery tiles. Another land began to appear in his mind, this time protected by giant roof tiles ten times as big as the ones above him, keeping everyone dry, allowing them all to scramble up to safety.
Song sat upright and shook himself. e night was quiet except for the heavy breathing of his family.
Xiao Mei had a raw cough, but it didn’t wake her. Xiao Bo continued to moan rhythmically in his sleep. He was too small to pretend he wasn’t hungry. Song had been pretending ever since he could remember. Taking less than his share. Knowing that he, the eldest, at the age of nine, was stronger than his sisters and brothers.
‘Song’ll make it,’ he had once overheard his mother tell his father. ‘He came to us in a good year. Not like his sisters and brothers. They were born at the wrong time.’
Song shivered in the cold damp room. It was then that he remembered the words of Zhu Wei, the medicine man who travelled between villages, carrying his chinking bottles of tinctures and pots of sweet-smelling balsam, all the while telling stories of places he had seen.
‘This world is sweet, my friend. Go. Take yourself away.’ Song tried to piece together what he had heard.
‘Malaya. Heady with spices. India. With its regal princes, elephants dressed up in finery, and the vivid colours. Ah, and then there’s Guiana. The sugarcane whispers in a sea breeze so salty you can lick it. Mangoes. Mangoes so full of juice they split on the tree and seep nectar. Like sunshine might taste. Rubber trees bleed without so much as a tap and a full bucket fetches a price so high that you don’t have to work for the rest of the month. There’s nothing to spend money on anyway, with fruit hanging off every tree: papaya, guava, carambola, sapodilla. No one is ever wanting. And don’t start me on the gold. Even babies of the poorest families wear solid gold bangles around their wrists and ankles. Diamonds too.
They say there are whole cities built of gold and precious stones.’ Song screwed up his eyes and tried to believe in the place Zhu Wei had described.
‘The Englishmen take you there for nothing – not a penny – on huge wooden boats which use the wind and the stars and their magic to reach these new lands. Hundreds are going every day, boy. You don’t want to be le behind. Hail down one of the carts. They’re sweeping through the villages collecting up young men with dreams and courage, the ones looking for adventure and who are willing to work. You want to get on your way before these places are full.
‘The boats leave from Guangzhou. A terrible place. Don’t get waylaid, I warn you, or you won’t make it to the end of the month. Keep moving. There’s a world beyond what you know. Every boy should travel. Go and see new places. Find work. Get rich. Come back if you want to. But see the world first. Don’t die here, boy. You’re too young to die here.’
Song pictured himself boarding one of the wooden English boats and arriving among lush plantations of sweet sugarcane bordered by trees bearing plump fruit on bowed branches. He licked his lips around the taste of a mango and felt burning cramps in his stomach. Then he imagined himself returning home laden with sugar and gold and diamonds, and the wide disbelieving shining eyes of his sisters and brothers.
Song shivered again. His mother had propped open the front door and the room was cool. He looked up, trying to imagine his father’s silhouette in the doorway, but nobody was there. Not that Song ever particularly noticed his father coming home. He was a man who spoke quietly and was so of foot. But in his head Song could hear his father’s voice telling him how to move through life:
‘strangers don’t like strangers’; ‘trouble only comes to those who stand out’; ‘keep your head down’. The memory of his words triggered something inside Song. He felt the sudden weight of his family; now he must not only take care of himself but everyone else, too. Song felt himself fold, sobbing, covering his face with his hands.
The village of Lishui felt their way through the days and weeks ahead in a daze. For the women and children le behind there was too much to do to think about mourning men. They could no longer drink clean water from the wells. ere was no dry re- wood. e babies lay listless, too emaciated to cry. e old people had stopped eating. e rest of the village sifted through the debris carried by the floodwater trying to salvage anything useful: a sack of wet seed, odd rice shoots, rotten wood, a sodden shred of cloth.
Every morning they hoped to wake to see the land steaming dry and to feel the heat of the sun, but instead clouds brooded heavy and low in the sky before bursting like blisters. Rain fell so hard it bounced from the ground, raining up as well as down. e grey air and reflecting water drained the land of colour. Song knew what he had to do. He thought of the sugar, the gold, the diamonds in far-off lands. But he also remembered the dark stories about the city called Guangzhou and how some men returned broken. ‘Stay away from them men,’ the women told the children, even when it was their own husbands. And the children listened and stayed away, frightened by the way the men sat all day staring out, as if they were asleep with their eyes open. Song shuddered, but he had made up his mind.
He went to find his mother. She was at the back of the house keeping the re alight. He watched her as she shifted around a pot of water, trying to catch the heat of a flickering flame before it extinguished with a fizz.
Zhang Je looked up. There were dark shadows under her glazed eyes, red and streaming from the smoke. Her face was drawn. She did not seem to see Song. He crouched down and took the pot from his mother. ‘Let me.’ She let the stick fall from her hands. Song used it to poke at the charred embers and blew into the refi. A cloud of ash billowed up.
‘I’m going to Guangzhou to look for work, Mama.’They both watched a small flame momentarily light up.‘I’ll go with the next cart,’ Song said. ‘They’re looking for boys like me. It doesn’t cost anything to go, they say. There’s lots of work. I’ll bring back money and food for everyone.’
About The Author:
I am the Editor of Vanity Fair On Travel.
My debut novel, Song is being published by Unbound in July 2018.
I’m a BBC presenter and video journalist on The Travel Show, and Contributing Editor at Condé Nast Traveller where I had a weekly column for a year Where I want to be right now.
I was formerly Deputy Editor of The Telegraph’s Ultratravel magazine and am the Destination Expert on China, Cambodia, Nepal and the Himalayas for The Telegraph newspaper.
I also write for The Wall Street Journal, Travel and Leisure and Tatler.
My career in journalism began with Newsweek magazine in New York in 1994, and I continued to report for them from Xi’an, Beijing and Taipei. I then took the position of Asia-Pacific Editor for Deutsche Welle Radio in Cologne, transitioning into television as a news producer for CNN International in London.
I am the winner of the Travel Writer of the Year 2016; winner of the AITO Travel Writer of the Year 2016, and winner of the Consumer Magazine Feature of the Year Award at the Ecoventura LATA Media Awards 2016.
I am a regular speaker and moderator on travel and adventure; judge writing and photography awards; teach travel writing courses; am a qualified performance coach (focusing on creative writing) and conduct media training.