Little Paradise by Gabrielle Wang 2010
Penguin Books Australia
IQ "She noticed how a certain colour made one person's skin glow, and yet the same colour against another person's skin made it appear lifeless. She saw, too, how clothes reflected a personality-happy, sad, wild, shy, fun-all revealed in the way a person dressed. It was then she realised that clothes had the power to transform, to bring out the inner beauty of a soul. And from her own soul she drew her creations." Mirabel pg. 15
It's 1943 and Mirabel is seventeen. Melbourne, Australia is rather far off from the fighting of WWII but there are still some soldiers stationed there. Mostly American ones but there are some Chinese soldiers as well. Mirabel does not expect to ever work up the courage to talk to any soldier. She's shy and focused on designing dresses. Falling in love was not a part of her plan, but then she meets JJ. JJ is a Chinese soldier who helps to send messages from Australia to China to help coordinate with the war effort. Falling in love with a soldier is frowned upon by Mirabel's family, especially not a poor one. This combined with JJ returning to China, threaten their relationship.
The pacing is rather odd with this novel. It's sort of like a butterfly or a hummingbird. The story moves fast, floating from event to event, never stopping long enough to fully dive into the event or the characters involved. The romance seems to develop quickly, but too quickly. Neither Mirabel or JJ have any noticeable flaws, nor do we get a distinct grasp of their personality. I wanted to know more about what made JJ laugh, what did he and Mirabel talk about, etc. The books is a romance but oddly enough I felt that I learned more about the politics and events surrounding China during and after WWII. Furthermore, I wished we had learned more about mapmaking, it seemed rather vague.
This story is even easier to get emotionally involved in because it's based on a true story. Mirabel is astonishingly brave. She is in a seemingly dire predicament but she bravely packs up and heads to Shanghai to find JJ. Once in Shanghai she has some connections that make her search a little easier but she can't depend on the help of her friends forever. Watching her grow even more self assured and remaining positive about finding JJ is empowering. The whole of China is facing tumultuous times as the Kuomintang struggles to maintain its power and kills anyone who is even accused of being a Communist, no questions asked. Mirabel is remarkably quick-witted when it comes to dealing with both the Kuomintang and the Communists. I like that the author maintains a neutral tone throughout the novel concerning the Communists and the Kuomintang, she highlights the good and the bad of both parties. Even before Mirabel heads to Shanghai, she starts to gain confidence as a mapmaker.
Little Paradise is an accomplished novel that covers WWII in Australia, which is mostly a foreign place to Americans, we know nothing about what was going on there during WWII. What makes the story even more winsome is the romance. Granted the details can be vague at times and the characters are not as fleshed out as I would have liked. However, the story goes above and beyond in historical detail, covering not just Australia in the '40s but China as well. It's an informative read but the romance is at the forefront. The book also covers the alienation many Asian people felt in Australia, Mirabel even changes her name to fit in better (it used to be Lei An). While it's disappointing to learn that racism was so prevalent around the world, it's still interesting to see how racism reared its head in other countries. As a bonus the book is beautifully packaged. Not only is the cover sublime, but so are the inside and back covers feature the designs of Ms. Wang's mother. I would recommend this book to people who wish to learn more about Australia's history, Asian immigrants in Australia, the negative and positives of the Communists and the Kuomintangs (essentially: history lovers) and romantics.
Disclosure: Received from the author. Thank you so much Gabrielle!