There is something about a family saga, spanning generations, that sparks the imagination and, if well-written, immerses the reader in a miasma of secrets, hopes, and dreams. Diamond Head (April 2015), by Cecily Wong, is no exception. Set in the shadow of the Diamond Head volcano on Oahu, this sweeping debut novel recounts the many-faceted story of the Leong lineage as told in the first-person by various female members of the household.
Wong’s compassionate narrative, based upon true stories of her own mother’s life and family, is enfolded in the funeral of Bohai Leong, the first son of Frank Leong who, in the early 1900s, founded a shipping dynasty in China. When the Boxer Rebellion and then the outbreak of World War I threaten his business and his life, he moves his family to Hawaii, where they become prestigiously wealthy. The first voice is that of Hong, his sister-in-law, who pulls the reader in as she recounts how she joined the household and became Lin Leong’s best friend and confident. And who, over the years, learns and holds in her heart many of the family secrets. But it is nineteen-year-old Theresa, Bohai’s pregnant daughter, who loosely holds the winding threads and disjointed, complex patterns of this novel together.
With its sharply drawn characters, most of Wong’s novel is compelling, laced with interesting detailed descriptions of Chinese and Hawaiian ethnos, culture, and traditions. The themes of fate and destiny, aptly described on page 305 as “fate…a car…and destiny the road we take…” are nicely entwined with the Chinese traditional red string of life that binds true lovers together. Deftly incorporated in this historical novel is the murder mystery of Frank Leong’s death. With its somewhat contrived circumstances, this should have been the primary thrust of the story instead of Bohai’s funeral. Although the continuing conceit does provide the center-stage for the four Leong women – each with her own distinctive voice and her own unique perspective – to tell their tales.
In many respects, this decent first literary attempt from a Peter S. Prescott prize winner for best prose is a difficult book to master. Some of the plot lines are disjointed and repetitious. The artificial crux of the novel does not happen until two-thirds through. Essential plot points are lost in seemingly hasty writing and the nearly ten page rambling discourse/denouement, is a bit confusing.
However even with its flaws, Wong’s novel is intriguing and almost hard to put down. It is worthy of any reader who is looking for a new, talented, diverse literary voice.
Reviewed by June J. McInerney
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