The Ventriloquist’s Daughter, by Lin Man-Chiu

Translated by Helen Wang (Balestier Press 2017)

See our Author of the Month feature on Lin Man-Chiu here.

Publisher’s blurb

After the tragic death of Liur’s mother, her father, a thwarted artist working as a doctor in the family hospital, is overcome with grief. He goes to study in America, leaving six-year-old Liur in the care of her grandparents, promising to return with a special doll for her.

But instead of studying, her father travels to the Andes, where he meets a mysterious ventriloquist who takes him as a pupil.

Five years later, he returns home, bringing with him one of the ventriloquist’s dolls. But it is not a present for Liur; instead, it becomes a menacing presence in the house, causing strife within the family.

Reading Chinese School Bookclub Reviews

Video review by St Gregory's School, Bath, 15/1/18

Reviewed by Yee lin Lau, Chobham Academy, 30/11/17

The Ventriloquist’s Daughter is a tale that explores the themes of loss, grief, change, gender and childhood trauma. It’s written in a childish and simplistic tone to create empathy for the youthful protagonist, Liur. This helps the reader to immerse themselves in her tale, helping them to comprehend and explore the child’s traumatic life and emotions throughout the novel.

Lin begins the story with a postcard from Liur’s father saying Gone travelling. When I get to the end of the road, I’ll turn around. This already reveals the first theme of loss, she also shows that Liar naïvely believes he would be coming home after so long. She then goes on to how her family has been effected by Mama’s death, the sorrow that filled them all drained of all hope. The family then start to argue as Baba blames himself for the death of his wife, while Yeye is raging on about Baba’s decision to leave the family hospital.

After Baba leaves home, we are introduced to characters such as Qing Qing and Uncle Ming De. Qing Qing acts both as liur’s Meimei and Jiejie, they both end up protecting and assisting each other. Uncle Ming De doesn’t replace Baba, yet he still teaches the two about Baba’s postcards, even though Liur cannot contact Baba, the postcards act as a one-way form of communication between the two, letting her know he is alive. Liur treasures these postcards with her life, eager to learn about the history behind the places on them. Such as Mexico, the islands of the Caribbean, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti.

Baba then reaches the End of the Road, or in this case a city in Argentina known as Ushuaia.  Upon hearing that Baba was returning Liur still have the childish belief that he will be the same man that she remembered five years ago. However when he returns he is portrayed to be nothing like the man he once was.

Baba was able to keep his promise of giving his daughter a doll. Ostensibly Carola appears to be a normal, Peruvian doll that wears a red-brown cape with a shell bracelet, but through Liur’s perception she wasn’t a cloth doll, but a real child. This makes the reader question if Liur has a wild imagination or if the nightmare of any child is true. Baba has also changed, with his new name being Corolo the Ventriloquist, who uses Carola to talk to Liur whilst also terrorising her. Carola has the magical ability of controlling Corolo, and over time Liur believes that the Baba she once knew is gone and that Carola is now the one controlling the two of them and influencing the rest of her life. The psychological trauma that has taken place upon Liur has perhaps made her view Carola as the child she once was or replacement, sparking her jealousy and hatred for the doll.

The novel also addresses bigger issues such as gender. Baba being Yeye and Nainai’s only male child, he was pressured to become the lead doctor at his family’s hospital. He wasn’t able to choose the path in life that he wanted, and neither was Liur at first. As a child she always questioned everyone about what made boys so special. Baba was the only one that was grateful for Liur being who she was as if she was a boy there would be too much pressure on her and she wouldn’t be able to live a happy life. Whilst her mother was pregnant, Liur had a growing jealousy for him, the same kind of hatred she had for Carola. Abandonment and loss of love seems to be the root of all of her fears. Lucky for the protagonist she is able to change her emotions of hatred and jealousy and step out of her fantasy and strive forward to her dream of becoming a psychotherapist, even with barriers such as Nainai and the rest of society.

Overall, the story of The Ventriloquist’s Daughter is a fascinating tale that explores a plethora of modern and archaic themes in both a complex yet simplistic way through the persona of Liur. Lin is also able to deeply involve the reader with the help of Wang translating it for the wider audience. Both are able to introduce some cultures that the world may have not heard of before, such as South American history and Ching Ming (the Sweeping of the Graves). This story was a charming read and some day I hope to read it in it’s original format. I recommend this book, both the translated version and the original to anyone interested. Students studying Chinese, no matter the level, would enjoy both versions of the book and it would challenge GCSE and A-level students to go through Lin’s tale.

Reviewed by Yee lin Lau, Y11, Chobham Academy

Reviewed by Idris Shaikh, Chobham Academy, 23/10/17

Overview

The Ventriloquist’s Daughter, written by Lin Man-Chiu and translated by Helen Wang, is a brilliantly chilling tale about grief, love, friendship and fear. It is beautifully translated, and ensnares the reader from start to finish.

Synopsis

After the tragic death of Luir’s mother, her father, a thwarted artist working as a doctor in the family hospital, is overcome with grief. He goes to study in America, leaving six-year-old Luir in the care of her grandparents, promising to return with a special doll for her.

But instead of studying, her father travels to the Andes, where he meets a mysterious ventriloquist who takes him as a pupil.

Five years later, he returns home, bringing with him one of the ventriloquist’s dolls. But it is not a present for Luir; instead, it becomes a menacing presence in the house, causing strife within the family. After observing her father performing strange rituals with the doll, Luir must find a way to defeat her demons – real or imagined.

The plot is exciting, encaptivating and well-structured, yet still riddled with twists and turns. The plot is laid out well,  and though is sometimes confusing, is brilliantly devised

Thoughts & Opinions

The novel is very well told, and also well translated; the characters are brought to life vividly, and on the whole the plot is well-balanced, keeping the reader hungry and on edge.

The character of Liur’s Father is particularly exceptional: his mood, his emotional state and also his physical appearance are all conveyed in such a way the reader cannot help but feel angry, sad, lonesome or happy with him.

Negatives

However, I feel the book could have been better ended; the last chapters of the book feel somewhat rushed, with a lack of depth and colour.

Conclusion

In a nutshell, The Ventriloquist’s Daughter is a moving story, written and translated to the highest degree. The plot is unpredictable, yet navigatable, and the characters deeply imagined and brought to life. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of the horror genre, or even anyone who is looking for a whole-hearted, touching, full-bodied story.

Reviewed by Idris Shaikh, Y10, Chobham Academy

Reviewed by Katharine Carruthers OBE, Institute of Education, UCL, 7/8/2017

Katharine Carruthers OBE

This is a novel for young readers, which is unafraid to grapple with the difficult issues of grief, loss and coping with change. The story is told by the book’s central character, Liur, and so maintains its youthful voice throughout. Liur’s narration reinforces the immediacy of the fear and emotional distress of the protagonist.

The novel begins with Liur receiving a postcard from her father, Baba: ‘Gone travelling. When I get to the end of the road, I’ll turn around’. Liur understands the sadness of her grandparents at this news, but says: ‘I didn’t want to comfort them. They had never comforted me. In their eyes, I was just a girl, and a girl couldn’t carry on the family business’. Liur and her friend Qing Qing follow Baba’s journey through South America over the ensuing years, as he sends postcards from his stopping points, adding an interesting travel dimension to the story. When Liur receives a postcard from Ushuaia, the southernmost city in Argentina, she is the first to realise he will now turn round and come home.

On coming home, it is clear that Baba has changed during his travels; he brings with him a ventriloquist’s doll called Carola. Liur has also grown up and is no longer the six-year-old, child who Baba has carried with him, in his mind, on his journey. Liur tells Qing Qing that Carola has ‘a red-brown cape. In one hand it holds a flute and on the other it wears a shell bracelet, and there are straw shoes on its feet…’

On the surface, the action that follows could be read as a gripping, scary children’s page-turner about dolls, which come alive in the night and cause mayhem and terror. Carola is genuinely creepy and Lin manages to convey a strong sense of mystery and magic from South America; at times, the reader does not know what is real and what is imagined by Liur and genuinely begins to question perception and reality.

The novel also operates at a much deeper psychological level. Without wishing this review to act as a spoiler, the following questions are posed: who or what has Carola become in Baba’s eyes and how is she regarded by Liur? How can both father and daughter come through their feelings of guilt, grief and loss, and accept the irrevocable changes in their lives? What for both has been the result of the lack of talking about feelings? These are big issues for any novel to deal with, let alone one for young people.
There are also a number of other themes for the reader to think about, all of which will resonate with teenage readers. Is it always best to comply with family expectations; can following what your parents want you to do, rather than what you might be best equipped to do, cause damage? What might be some of the issues around the traditional Chinese practice of a man bringing his wife into the family home to live? The novel also portrays society’s traditional preference for boys in China and it touches on parental weakness too, at a time when young readers may just be beginning to glimpse that their parents do not have an answer for everything.

Lin deals well with childhood friendships and with the touching visits of Baba and Liur to Mama’s grave in the forest. There is some ‘psychological’ explanation of events at the end of the book, just enough to make you want to go back and re-read parts of it again or to take part in discussions in class round its themes. This would be an excellent, very rich novel to read in translation in school book clubs and hopefully to read excerpts from the original for those studying Chinese in the sixth form.

The quality of the writing, which keeps in the character of its child narrator throughout, the strength of the translation, its intriguing plot and the plethora of questions it throws up makes the book difficult to put down; it is a highly-recommended read.