The perfect cup of tea is not the same for everyone, yet, no tea-lover can deny the perfection it lends to a hectic day when rounded off with a sip of the brew.
Similarly, the perfect novel may or may not exist, but Lisa See infuses her book, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, with distinctive flavors that make the readers aspire for perfection.
A story that spans across three generations, this historical fiction is narrated by Li-Yan, who belongs to the Akha tribe and lives in a village in the Yunnan province of China. Li-Yan introduces us to her family, their occupation, animistic beliefs, tribal traditions, and economic conditions.
Thereon, it is a chronicle of her journey – as a curious but obedient school girl, as a headstrong girl foolishly and madly in love, as a young mother torn between her love-child and respect for her tribe’s strict rules, and finally, as a mature businesswoman.
The book begins in the form of a memoir, but as Li-Yan leaves her native village to become an outsider, the narration zooms out to bring an outsider’s perspective. The action shifts to other parts of the world, and the reader can get a worldview.
This perspective is essential because life in the remote hill village may seem to be other-worldly. As if time has stopped still in this village except for the cyclical rhythms of the tea-picking season.
The story explores motherhood and how mothers of the same family treat their children differently, though the guilt, responsibility, and affection remain the same.
Mothers, daughters, and wives fight for their independent identities while hanging onto their roots.
Being torn between traditional beliefs that grew with her into adulthood and the socio-cultural enlightenment provided by her education, Li-Yang straddles contradictory views of the world. However, she never loses track of her fundamental principles in life.
She believes in the value of hard work and looks down upon immoral and unethical practices. Lisa See builds a believable, humane, and inspirational heroine.
Li-Yang grows up hating the back-breaking work of tea picking but later realizes that tea is her destiny and is more than just a healing herb used by her mother.
It is aptly captured in these lines – “I grew up believing that rice was to nourish and that tea was to heal. Now I understand that tea is also to connect and to dream.” I am sure that every tea-lover has had this realization in life.
So, this story’s protagonist is undoubtedly tea, especially the Pu’er tea of the Yunnan province.
Tea and its harvesting dictate the life of the people of Yunnan. It causes hardships, disappointments as well as brings them unexpected success.
Within Yunnan, tea is an integral part of life, and outside, it takes on a spiritual character. It is prized for its health benefits but also honored for its timelessness. It rakes in the moolah for Yunnan and brings stars to the eyes of aspiring business people. It inspires incredible creativity and also introduces corruption.
The author draws a portrait of a region that owes its rising prospects to tea while lamenting traditional know-how. The story also touches upon contemporary issues affecting the tea industry – global warming and climate change.
Overall, the book offers enough to chew on – traditions, superstitions, business, changing environmental conditions, family values, mother-daughter relations, marital success, and immigrants’ challenges.
My favorite sections of the book are the ones that gently whisper a few lines of wisdom while we follow Li-Yang on her exciting journey.
Lisa weaves pertinent aphorisms throughout the book, and it only seems apt to brew a cup of tea while one savors them.
I have noted down these in my journal for posterity.
“An hour spent drinking tea is the hour when the prince and the peasant share thoughts and ready themselves for the commonalities and woes of their separate lives.”
“…every story, every dream, every waking minute of our lives is filled with one fateful coincidence after another. People and animals and leaves and fire and rain – we whirl around each other like handfuls of dried rice kernels being tossed into the air.”
And the last one – for the current times.
“Tall trees catch much wind, and The bird that stands out is easily shot.”
Book Name: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane
Author: Lisa See
Book Type: eBook