Many writers have engaged in the project of rescuing female figures from history, but few have tackled such an unsympathetic character as Anchee Min does in her historical novel Becoming Madame Mao. Known as the White Boned Demon during her reign of terror in China, Madame Mao was blamed for countless bloody and vengeful executions; she sought out those who had wronged her in the past and wiped them off the face of the earth. Eventually she was reviled in China and executed, even as her husband was revered as a hero.
Before her stint as Mao's first lady, Jiang Ching, as she was then known, was an actress, a singer, and a star in Communist films. Anchee Min grew up in Red China and watched Jiang Ching from afar; she was fascinated by her for many years, by tales of her independence and strength, and by images of her beauty. In a way, the great villain and demon was a role model for Anchee Min, and her teenage devotion is the engine of her remarkable novel. Moving back and forth between stories of the actress and the evil dictator, Min complicates the Madame Mao of history.
As a girl, Madame Mao narrowly escaped having her feet bound. The book opens with graphic descriptions of this process and of the ensuing infection that freed her. But if her feet were not bound, her spirit was. Reared by a mother who was the last concubine of a rich man, and a father who liked to hit his girls with shovels, Madame Mao as a young girl felt herself doomed: "I see my father hit Mother with a shovel. It happened suddenly. Without warning. I can hardly believe my eyes. He is mad. He calls Mother a slut. Mother's body curls up. My chest swells. He hits her back, front, shouting that he will break her bones." The father then goes on to treat his daughter the same way. Decades later, when Madame Mao manifests deep brutality, Min seems to be saying that what goes around comes around. Flawed by a clumsy structure that vacillates between third and first person arbitrarily, Becoming Madame Mao is nevertheless an immensely interesting work--defiant, morally ambiguous, and difficult to put down. --Emily White