“Do you believe in time?”
This question, posed by Su Lan to an attending nurse the night her daughter, Liya, is born is a question that haunts the pages of Meng Jin’s Little Gods from start to finish. Su Lan, a brilliant physicist, is obsessed with erasing her past and understanding the complexities of time. One way that Su Lan attempts to leave her past behind her is to make her way to the United States with her 2-year-old daughter, in search of new beginnings and scientific research.
Seventeen years later, Su Lan unexpectedly dies, mysteriously and with no logical cause. Liya views it as yet another way her mother hasn’t provided answers for her – a consistent feeling that Liya has had over the years. Because of this, she decides to take Su Lan’s ashes and return to her birthplace in China, searching for answers to who her mother was and who she is. While there, she encounters a number of people from her mother’s life, each of whom are able to add another layer to Liya’s understanding of Su Lan.
It took Meng Jin approximately 7 years to write and complete Little Gods, and the care and crafting that she put into the story, the characters, and the structure certainly pay off. Every single character in the story – whether it is one of the POV characters, a background character, or Su Lan herself – is incredibly real, fleshed out, and immensely integral to Liya’s journey. Even though a majority of the novel takes place after Su Lan has passed and she is never a POV character, the reader gets a rich and full look into her life, motivations, and passions. She is undoubtedly the main character of the book without ever really being on page. The fact that Jin is able to craft the tale in a way that maintains the strength of Su Lan when she is no longer there is a testament to how well the story is written.
In addition to the phenomenal character work in Little Gods, another merit to the novel is how well it blends the philosophical with the scientific. I myself know very little about physics, yet I was never deterred from reading about these complex theories. Jin writes in a way that is accessible and understandable for readers of all backgrounds, which is beneficial because the physics add such beautiful layers to Su Lan’s character and Liya’s relationship with her mother. Little Gods is a fascinating look at the idea of self, both internally and externally and the impact of memory, full of intricate and frank conversations about entropy, death, and relationships.
If you enjoyed the lyrical writing and wrenching mother-child relationship of Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous or the search for family and identity found in Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field, Little Gods is definitely for you. Furthermore, if you are interested in non-conventional structure and extraordinarily real characters, I would highly recommend Jin’s debut!