It must have been kismet which dictated that my copy of Negative Space, Lilly Dancyger’s spellbinding memoir, would arrive in the mail the day I finished reading Little Gods, the haunting novel by Meng Jin. There is a theme uniting these two powerful works: that of a young woman determined to understand the truth about a parent taken from them as a child.
Little Gods is the story of Su Lan, a brilliant, passionate, and enigmatic physicist whose traumatic past curtails what should be a life of professional success. While Su Lan is the center of the book, she is the only main character who does not get a viewpoint in the narration. Instead, the reader must splice together a portrait of the woman from the impressions of her friend and neighbor, Zhu Wen, and the two men who adore her: Zhang Bo and Liya’s father, Yongzong.
But this is also the story of Liya, born in Beijing in the hospital nearest to Tiananmen Square on the very night of the massacre on June 4, 1989. Her father, Su Lan’s husband, disappears the same night. While Liya is growing up, first in Shanghai and later in the United States, Su Lan, a temperamental, often depressed mother, never speaks of him and Liya knows better than to ask questions.
Only when Liya is eighteen and returns to China with her mother’s ashes, does she attempt to uncover her father’s identity along with other secrets of her mother’s past. The book is beautifully written, tragic, heartbreaking—everything a therapist like myself loves in a novel. Meng expertly weaves in details about politics, history, gender dynamics and the meaning of transcending socioeconomic class.
I found even more to love in Negative Space, in part because I grew up in New York City, spent time in Dancyger’s stomping grounds in the East Village, took ballet at the Joffrey School, and also grew up surrounded by the art of my father and his friends. Like Dancyger, I was not allowed coloring books, because my father, like hers believed in setting the imagination free to create without premanufactured lines.
And Dancyger’s creative spirit shows up on every page. This memoir is so engaging because of the author’s graceful and gripping use of language, her candor about the emotional rollercoaster she rode in the process of manifesting her father’s memory. Dancyger allows us to get so close to her experience, to herself, I could not put it down. I was drawn in by each character—her father, his friends, her mother, Lilly herself at every age and incarnation—as if this were a work of fiction, and I mean that in the best way.
I know from Dancyger’s acknowledgments that there were editors who recommended she leave out the photographs of her father’s sketches and sculptures, but they added so much dimension, immersing me in his character as he crystalized for Dancyger herself.
Dancyger’s father was at once a devoted, loving hero of a dad and a heroin addict. The author never dodges the coexistence of these twin facts. She draws herself, her childhood, her adolescence and overall daughterhood in vivid strokes, weaving in humor and joy along with the trauma.
I highly recommend both books—read as companions in theme, or whenever you get the chance, in any order.