Dancing in the River by George Lee

Dancing in the River, George Lee’s debut novel is a Guernica Prize Winner, and it is an unusual and beguiling book. At times while reading it, I found myself struggling with questions around genre, point of view and literary convention. Ultimately, I decided that Dancing in the River sits at a point of convergence, an apt positioning for a story about the intersection of ancient Eastern philosophies, repressive cultural practices and the notion of free will.

Dancing in the River sits at a point of convergence, an apt positioning for a story about the intersection of ancient Eastern philosophies, repressive cultural practices and the notion of free will.”

Although not a memoir, Lee weaves pieces of his past into the story of Little Bright, (later Victor when he adopts an English name.) Little Bright is a child in a small riverside town in China when Mao’s Cultural Revolution comes down on his community like a hammer. An inevitable and ugly stain spreads, with neighbours reporting on neighbours, and violence erupting as individuals are compelled to demonstrate loyalty to the regime. Little Bright’s father is taken to a labour camp as a revolutionary. His mother, a bookkeeper, is suspected of stealing cash when her records don’t reconcile. She is sent to a re-education camp.

“Was it possible that my uncles had reported Father to the Party to protect themselves? In those days, all things were possible. I heard stories about children publicly denouncing their parents, severing their ties with their biological parents, and accepting the Party as their guardians.”

Little Bright has always loved words. However, “[words]”, he is told by his uncle, “are more lethal than aimed bullets.” Little Bright learns to fear everyone and everything, but most particularly self-expression. “In my subconscious mind, I associated public attention with shame and humiliation. To avoid the feeling, my subconscious forced me to quit writing.” 

With Mao’s death and a softening of some of the more egregious practices of cultural repression, Little Bright goes to university where he learns English. He becomes enthralled with Western ideas of rationality and is fascinated by the stories of Sherlock Holmes. He is swept up in the influences of Pavlov and Shakespeare.

“I felt as if I no longer belonged to this land that grounded my feet. I thought about what Nietzsche had said: ‘Madness is something rare in individuals – but in the groups, parties, peoples, and ages, it is the rule.’” Applying a newly acquired perspective, he begins to deconstruct many of the old and pervasive ideas regarding conformity, obedience, allegiance.  The Chinese notion of fate, with its accompanying superstitions, has been the predominant life force in the land for centuries, and a necessary adaptation – a preoccupation with rituals which encouraged survival. But for Victor, the idea is crushing. When he discovers Christianity toward the end of the novel, it bestows on him an internal locus of control, a “God-consciousness” that will reside within. “As you think, so you are. As you sow, so you reap. Thinking is sowing. Hence, our destiny lies within, not without.”  The experience is liberating for Victor. “Go fly toward the sky, where the river flows, where you can find home. Actually, the whole world is your home now,” says his grandmother before he is to leave to take up a new life in Canada.

Dancing in the River is both a coming-of-age story as well a coming-into-consciousness story. Lee’s writing has an open quality. It is genuine yet shy of confessional. The narrative is both fable-like and sufficiently intimate to compel us to follow Victor’s transformation. In the prologue, Lee writes, “I am both the author and reader, the experiencer and the experienced . . . “ The book, he tells us, “carries an allegorical burden: to unearth the truth about the mystery of life and of myself. My journey began as a river …”

He goes on: “The sentences rattled in my brain and banged on the door of my heart. Finally, the pages opened in the wind and carried this tale far and wide.”  This debut novel is both perplexing and thought-provoking given that China remains an enigma for many of us. I for one am glad that Lee picked up his pen and found the courage to answer the story’s call.

George Lee was born and raised in China. He earned an M.A. in English literature from University of Calgary, and a Juris Doctor degree from University of Victoria. His first novel, Dancing in the River, won the 2021 Guernica Prize for Literary Fiction. He practises law in Vancouver, Canada.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Guernica Editions (Nov. 1 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 288 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 177183756X
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771837569

 -- Website

Valerie Mills-Milde lives, works, and writes in London Ontario. She is the author of the novel After Drowning (2016), which won the IPPY Silver Medal for Contemporary Fiction and The Land's Long Reach,(2018) which was a finalist for The Miramichi Reader's 2019 "The Very Best!" Book Awards. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous Canadian literary magazines. When she is not writing, she is a clinical social worker in private practice. Valerie acknowledges that the land on which she lives is the traditional territory of the Attawandaron, Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee, and Lunaapeewak peoples who have longstanding relationships to the land, water and region of southwestern Ontario.