Review: In her novel ‘Green Island,’ Shawna Yang Ryan explores Taiwan under authoritarian rule

Taiwan has been a democracy since the 1980s, but in the decades after World War II it was under one-party rule — or rather military dictatorship — by the Kuomintang. In the novel “Green Island,” 14 years in the making, Shawna Yang Ryan tells the story of this tortured era through the struggles of one family that lives through it all at enormous cost.

The unnamed narrator is the youngest child of the Tsai family, born Feb. 28, 1947, the day of the horrendous massacre that marked the beginning of martial law in Taiwan. The novel follows her across six decades, tracing her youth in Taiwan, her life in the U.S., and her visits home as an American citizen.

Two weeks after her birth, her father is taken away for speaking against the government, one of a vast number of dissidents fallen victim to the Kuomintang. “The disappearances were an island-wide secret … we would not know for decades that the dead measured in the tens of thousands.”

Unlike the many martyrs, who are memorialized as heroes, the father survives. He returns home after a 10-year absence a broken man, and the long-hoped-for reunion is sad and uneasy. The narrator has no memory of this stranger (“I stared at his damaged teeth until my mother snapped at me to keep eating”); his long-suffering wife finds that "[w]aiting had been easier.… She had considered only happy endings,” which this is not. His very survival becomes a mark of dishonor because it is assumed to have come at a cost.

Ryan paints a chilling, convincing picture of Taiwan during the years of authoritarian rule. Speech, of course is limited — “even if no one believed the lie, they could do nothing but shut up and take it and write thinly veiled poems and make thinly veiled films and write thinly veiled songs. The whole country existed in metaphor.” The regime encourages citizens to spy on each other and report every hint of dissidence. The Tsais are forced into impossible situations, weighing betrayals against betrayals.


Even after she immigrates to the States, where she arrives “dizzy, the past wiped away by an ocean, the future unfurling like an unexploited continent,” the narrator finds herself followed by the long arm of martial law when she and her husband harbor an infamous political refugee. Thirty years after her father’s arrest, with her daughters to protect, she is forced to make the decisions that will define her own life.

“Green Island” is an ambitious book — a historical novel, a family saga, an immigrant tale — and it manages to achieve its most sweeping goals. It is less successful on a granular level. The personal moments lack the power of the political. Some of the relationships are unconvincing — the narrator’s marriage, in particular, invites little emotional investment. A strange last act — in 2003, years after democracy wins the day — feels tacked on and saccharine, and the SARS scare offers a less compelling backdrop than Taiwan’s White Terror.

The prose is also uneven. There are lovely moments (“The world reverses, and through the breaks in the clouds and for hours and hours, the blue ocean”) but several awkward ones as well (“Like a snake eating its tail, they talked in circles, working up to a fever pitch.”) The narrator has an unfortunate tendency toward grand pronouncements: “The world does not happen the way we lay it out on paper: one event after another, one word following the next like a trail of ants”; “In a way, weren’t they all widows selling black market cigarettes?”

To be fair, “Green Island” is a grand project, even with its imperfections. It stands as a tribute to the flawed survivors of Taiwan’s history, “the men more complicated than martyrs … the families who’d had to relearn the hardships of the everyday.”

Cha is the author, most recently, of the novel “Dead Soon Enough.”


Green Island

Shawna Yang Ryan
Knopf: 400 pp., $26.95