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The Third Son by Julie Wu

The Third Son v2

It’s been a hard decision to decide what books to bring for my holidays in Middle East. Usually most of my holidays are city breaks and I would rather soak in everything in the foreign land rather than bury my head on my books while I am travelling.

I am new to this ARC review business. This book is not due to publish until 30 April and I am not sure if there is a rule that says I shouldn’t publish a ARC review one month before the book is actually published? (some publisher do discourage it).

What draws me to the book was the mention of Taiwan. I have yet to read a book from Taiwan and what do I know about Taiwan? All I know about the country is that its founding members are the Nationalist Army led by Chiang Kai Shek after the defeat by the Communists from Mainland China. I know very little.

It is 1943. As air-raid sirens blare in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, eight-year-old Saburo (Chinese name: Tong Chialin) walks through the peach forests of Taoyuan. The least favoured son of a Taiwanese politician, Saburo is in no hurry to get home to the taunting and abuse he suffers at the hands of his parents and older brother Kazuo. In the forest he meets Yoshiko, whose picture of her loving family are to Saburo like a glimpse of paradise and Saburo fell in love with Yoshiko. Due to the defeat of Japanese and the arrival of the Nationalist Army Saburo did not see Yoshiko again and for years he will try to find her again.

Will the least favoured son in the family release from the grasp of his family’s condescending treatment? Will Saburo find Yoshiko again? I found the answers after waiting for the flight home from Amman and a 4-hour flight. I finished the book.

I was deeply aware of my ignorance in several levels about Taiwan’s history through this book.

I was surprised that Taiwan was occupied by Japanese for 50 years, from 1895 to 1945, at least two generations of Taiwanese are imbued in Japanese education and culture. I was also surprised to hear that the Kuomintang party had committed so much atrocities to dissidents and the natives of the island didn’t exactly welcome their own kind after the Japanese occupation with open arms. Incidents such as White Terror was mentioned. In Taiwan, the White Terror (白色恐怖) describes the suppression of political dissidents, as well as public discussion of the 228 Incident in Taiwan under the period of martial law, which lasted from May 19, 1949 to July 15, 1987, 38 years, and 57 days. 140,000 Taiwanese was imprisoned and many more were massacred during the uprising in 1947.

I read with a sense of cognizant how cruel family can be towards their least favourite child. The best food went to Saburo’s older brother during food rationing so much so that he was diagnosed as malnourished. The best education is given to Kazuo but not to Saburo. Saburo’s plight in the story while growing up is the part that moved me most. I hope I am being fair to my children. It is a taboo to discuss, to mention or to think that out of our many children perhaps there may be one that is “the favourite”. But it does happen.

Under the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Spanish, the Japanese, and now the Mainland Chinese.

In an oppressed society, there are three main means of survival. There is the farmer’s way, plowing on as he was for centuries, his hat shadowing his face. There is my father’s method, of opportunism. And then there are those who cannot or will not accept things as they are. Like Yoshiko’s mother, who came down the om the mountains, and the Taoyuan magistrate, who was killed, they must either speak up or leave and seek freedom elsewhere. This last option, I was increasingly beginning to feel, would be my way. – Saburo

The formatting of ARC kindle copies are not great. There are sections with no apparent paragraph break which I find a little disoriented. The epistolary section from wife’s Yoshiko’s letter is fine but it is always Yoshiko’s letters that are being featured not Saburo’s, I thought it was a little lopsided. The plotting was good but the writing is ok, it didn’t give the book the “wow” factor that it deserves with such a stunning country setting and colourful characters.

I was in that sky, cutting down path through the rippling patterns of clouds, through the layers of stratified gases, to a land where no one knew me. [..] From now on, all that mattered was the man I was now and the man I planned to be.

Mirroring an oppressed child in a family of an oppressed country it provides a parallel that are both intriguing and tragic. The Third Son is also an immigration story. I thought the last third of the book depicting the struggle of Saburo to bring his wife over to the America and his resolution to free himself from the shackles of family expectation was good. It is a fight that requires great courage under the Confucian filial piety demands that the son is supposed to give to their parents in the Chinese culture. As Saburo said, it is not always about love, but it’s about Duty. Honour. Respect.

A wound that never healed. A promise never to be fulfilled. That was family.

The book will be published in the 30 April 2013 in North America. I am not sure if it will be available in the UK. It is a good introduction to Taiwan history and an entertaining read.

Rating: three and a half stars

Julie Wu

Kindle copy. Publisher: Algonquin 30 April 2013; Length: 320 pages; Setting: Taiwan and America. Source: Kindle copy. Finished reading on: 17th February 2013.

About the writer:

After graduating from Harvard with a BA in literature, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, Julie Wu received an MD at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons.  She has received a writing grant from the Vermont Studio Center and is the recipient of a 2012 Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowship.

Julie Wu author blog

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


15 thoughts on “The Third Son by Julie Wu

  1. I too haven’t read many (any?) books set in Taiwan or by Taiwanese authors, although I have been to Taipei twice (the first time when I was 10? And again for work a few years ago). I’m definitely going to add this to my tbr list as it does sound interesting!

    Posted by olduvai | February 22, 2013, 1:42 am
    • Olduvai,
      Despite reading Mandarin books from Taiwan when I was younger I haven’t been to Taiwan at all! The book will be published in the USA, you have no problem reserving it from the library. I look forward to hear what you think about it!

      Posted by JoV | February 23, 2013, 12:01 am
  2. Thank you for introducing this book, JoV. It’s intriguing. I’ll certainly get a copy.

    If you are interested in the history around the 228 事件,you may want to watch some films by Hou Hsiao-Hsien http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hou_Hsiao-Hsien and his famous film, A City of Sadness. http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/悲情城市.

    I was a student in Taiwan during the time when the society was trying to heal the wounds left by the 228 event. I attended the (probably the very first) Peace and Reconciliation church service in 1990 (平安礼拜)at the Baptist church in Taipei. Now, there’re more and more awareness and studies into this particular episode in Taiwan history, and the church services are now regularly held for peace and reconciliation.

    Taiwan is a lovely place and its people are still very much influenced by the Japanese culture. I picked up lots of Japanese while in Taiwan, and many Japanese words have entered the vernacular Chinese there, just like how we used to litter Malay words into Chinese.

    By the way, in your writing, you mentioned Taiwan as a ‘country’. This can cause another heated debate.

    Posted by Janet Williams | February 22, 2013, 3:34 pm
    • Janet,
      Thanks for the info. Before reading this book, I haven’t a clue about Taiwan. Since the Japanese had occupied the island for so long, I can see how Taiwan has the capacity to grow into a force of reckon in the world of electronics. I have fond memories of Mandarin books I read when I was younger, mostly from Taiwan. I have no doubt they are lovely people and I am sad to learn Taiwan has gone through so much in the last century.

      I know Taiwan as a “country” is a contentious issue. What should I call it then? 😉

      If you ever read this book, I look forward to hear what you think about it.

      Posted by JoV | February 23, 2013, 12:08 am
  3. I got a copy of this from Netgalley too, for the same reason you did (Taiwan!).
    I like immigration stories so I’m looking forward to that part of the novel.

    Posted by Sam (Tiny Library) | February 22, 2013, 7:27 pm
  4. I ve not read any books set in Taiwan or written by Taiwanese writers so hope this gets uk publisher ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | February 23, 2013, 5:28 pm
  5. I am planning to make Taiwan my next journey. This book would make an interesting preview to the actual journey. I confess I don’t know much about the country either – how was Jordan?

    Posted by Soul Muser | February 24, 2013, 6:10 am
  6. I really enjoyed reading your review! And I agree the ARC copies on Netgalley aren’t that great. Sometimes the story did feel a little disjointed, but still it was a good read :).

    Posted by Streetlight Reader | March 9, 2013, 6:46 pm


  1. Pingback: The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam | JoV's Book Pyramid - March 17, 2013

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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Ten White Geese
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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