Author: Lisa See
Read: July / August 2017
Read: July / August 2017
My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟 1/2
Li-yan and her family align their lives around the seasons and the farming of tea. There is ritual and routine, and it has been ever thus for generations. Then one day a jeep appears at the village gate - the first automobile any of them have seen - and a stranger arrives. In this remote Yunnan village, the stranger finds the rare tea he has been seeking and a reticent Akha people.
Li-yan, one of the few educated girls on her mountain, translates for the stranger and is among the first to reject the rules that have shaped her existence. When she has a baby outside of wedlock, rather than stand by tradition she wraps her daughter in a blanket, with a tea cake hidden in her swaddling, and abandons her in the nearest city. After mother and daughter have gone their separate ways, Li-yan slowly emerges from the security and insularity of her village to encounter modern life while Haley grows up a privileged and well-loved California girl. Despite Haley's happy home life, she wonders about her origins, and Li-yan longs for her lost daughter. They both search for and find answers in the tea that has shaped their family's destiny for generations.
I can’t start this review without first saying a HUGE thank you to the Goodreads community, who continue to put me on to fantastic new books I wouldn’t normally pick up. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is a perfect example – with a title that is so obviously not my usual genre, I would have never read this marvel of a story had I not stumbled across a few rave reviews by much respected readers on Goodreads, who highly recommended it. Feeling like something different from my usual fare of gruesome murder mysteries and psychological thrillers, I downloaded the audiobook and - WOW! What a fantastic read!
I have longed for some armchair travel to a remote and culturally diverse place for some time, and Lisa See’s book delivered it in spades. Transported off to a different world altogether, I not only discovered the culture of the Akha people (one of the 50 ethnic minorities living in China), but learned so much about my favourite beverage – tea – that it has added a whole new depth to my morning cuppa of Chinese Jasmine tea. See seamlessly blends facts and fiction, educating the armchair traveller as the story progresses and adding depth to her characters. I fell in love with Li-yan, and felt quite bereft when the book ended. Li-yan’s journey from her simple and yet culturally rich life in the remote mountain village in Yunnan to being confronted with all the trappings of 20th century life was fascinating. I often tried to put myself in her shoes, thinking how strange it must feel to come from a place without cars and electricity, and suddenly having to learn her way around a computer, catch a plane, drive a car. Such different worlds! See’s astute descriptions of how the 21st century finally catches up with the Akha people were also thought provoking, as I have witnessed these changes myself when travelling to previously untouched regions, where everyone suddenly owns a mobile phone.
Following Li-yan’s life from her early childhood to young adulthood and finally being a wife and mother, the book took me on an incredible journey I will remember for a long time to come. I thoroughly admired Li-yan’s courage and resilience in the face of adversity, and she soon was as real to me as someone I had known all my life. I now feel like I want to go to Yunnan and sip some of the famous Pu’er’ tea that influenced Li-yan’s life so much! Whilst most of the book is written from Li-yan’s POV, See incorporates some clever and unusual chapters revealing the fate of Li-yan’s abandoned daughter, who has been adopted by a wealthy American couple and is struggling with her own identity as she grows up not knowing her origins. Whilst I initially struggled with Hailey’s voice in the narration, I was able to connect more deeply with her towards the end of the book, and found her story a worthwhile journey in its own right. See’s insights into cross-cultural adoption made for some interesting reflection and discussion points, and it would be interesting to read more about Hailey’s life in the years following the book’s ending.
Hours of pleasure and joyful anticipation of my commute (and listening to the story) later, and I am still rocked by the emotional impact the story had on me. A fantastic read, and very much recommended. Don’t be put off by the title, as I was, because this in an author that really packs some punch and you won’t regret picking up this marvel of a book. Definitely on my favourite list for the year!