01 July 2024

Review: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See book cover

* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is my third novel by Lisa See and this familiarity with her writing style made for a quick and easy entry into the narrative. Li-yan is born in a remote mountain village in Yunnan in Southern China.

While set in more recent times, the remote nature of the Akha people in the village and the tea growing and processing practices gave the first half of the novel a feeling of taking place much earlier than 1988.

Li-yan grows up learning the traditions of her people in a village without electricity and never having seen a car. We learn early on that the ruma - spirit priest - is the headman, and the nima - shaman - has the power to determine incantations to heal and determine vitality.

Furthermore, Li-yan explains the village hierarchy as follows:
"These men are followed next by all grandfathers, fathers, and males of any age. My mother is ranked first among women not only in our village but on the entire mountain. She is a midwife and so much more, treating men, women, and children as they pass through their lives. She's also known for her ability to interpret dreams." Page 4
Li-yan doesn't want to follow in her mother's footsteps to become a midwife in a culture where the birth of twins is considered taboo, as only animals, demons and spirits give birth to litters.

Relatably, Li-yan struggles against numerous elements of her culture:
"Until today, I've never been a troublemaker. I never cross my legs around adults, I accept my parents' words as good medicine, and I always cover my mouth to hide my teeth when I smile or laugh." Page 12
Instead Li-yan seeks knowledge, which eventually takes her out of the village and away from her heritage while maintaining her connection to the tea growing and selling industry. The narrative takes the reader through her discovery of technology and adjustment to China in the 1990s, but it always comes back to tea.
"The color of the brew is rich and dark with mystery. The first flavor is peppery, but that fades to divine sweetness. The history of my people shimmers in my bones. With every sip, it's as if I'm wordlessly reciting the lineage. I'm at once merged with my ancestors and with those who'll come after me. 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." Page 175
If you're a novice or dedicated tea drinker or have a passing interest in the manufacture and process of tea making then there's ample history and material here to whet your whistle. Thanks to extensive research, there's an abundance of passages and prose celebrating the benefits of tea, the philosophy of tea and even the poetry of tea. As it is, I don't drink tea, but thanks to the descriptive writing I was at least able to respect the heritage and imagine the allure of pu'er tea and the various effects achieved with every harvest.

What really drives the novel forward though are the relationships between mothers and daughters and Li-yan's own sense of self. These themes are echoed in Lady Tan's Circle of Women (2023) and The Island of Sea Women (2019), both written by Lisa See and set in China and Korea respectively. Published in 2017, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane precedes both of these titles and by reading these stand-alone novels in reverse order I can definitely see an improvement in the intervening years.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See is recommended for tea drinkers and tea aficionados who enjoy historical fiction set in China with a maternal undercurrent and a clever ending.

My Rating:

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