Set in Melbourne and Shanghai during World War II, Little Paradise by Gabrielle Wang is a historical fiction novel, inspired by the true story of the author’s parents. The book begins with a young Chinese-Australian girl, Mirabel, meeting a soothsayer with her mother after she’d expressed the desire to change her name from her Chinese one – Lei An. The story then follows her life as that of a schoolgirl in Melbourne; to her meeting and falling in love with a Chinese soldier, JJ; to their separation, and the discovery that leads to her setting off to China amidst civil war to find him.
The realism of the historical details really stood out in Little Paradise. I enjoyed the recognisably Australian aspects of the setting in Melbourne, but it was also clearly grounded in the time of war, both by conveying its tensions, and showing the joys that people held on to. The subsequent setting in Shanghai was a complete contrast to this, and this distinction was clearly-drawn through Mirabel’s initial fear and confusion, which both progressed and diminished as time went on. Political aspects such as the civil war in China were well-balanced in their explanations, providing enough to ground an unfamiliar reader without being overwhelming.
As the heroine, Mirabel was easy to root for. She remained resilient and was willing to make sacrifices throughout her journey, in her commitment to finding JJ and establishing a potential life for them. Her growth from a sixteen-year-old to a more experienced and mature young woman throughout the book was heart-warming to follow. JJ was also an admirable, sympathetic character, and it was powerful to see their dedication to each other.
I also loved reading about the depth and variety of relationships in the book, where the focus goes far beyond just Mirabel and JJ. Complexities and cultural nuances were present in Mirabel’s family dynamics, such as the burden of secrets from her mother’s past, and the challenges Mirabel faces with her father. Mirabel’s lasting friendship at school and beyond with another young woman, Rose, was lovely; as was seeing her form new relationships with the people who helped her throughout her journey.
When I initially read it in 2012, this book was also one of the first (along with Preloved by Shirley Marr) which I genuinely saw myself in – and thus holds special resonance for that reason. There were minor aspects, like the snippets of Chinese dialogue, that I delighted in reading and understanding; and more deeply informative ones, such as familiar and unfamiliar traditions, and all that I learned about Chinese and Chinese-Australian history throughout.
Overall, Little Paradise is definitely a book I’d like to put into more people’s hands. It was captivating in a rare way, full of beautiful relationships, and contained insightful historical detail. It would be great to see more like it.
Wendy Chen is a Sydney-based fiction, review and opinion writer. Her past appearances include the Emerging Writers’ Festival and National Young Writers’ Festival 2016. You can find her website at http://www.written-in-wonder.tumblr.com