The Porcelain Moon: A Novel of France, the Great War, and Forbidden Love by Janie Chang

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and Janie Chang’s new historical fiction, The Porcelain Moon, are similar with a quartet of young lovers oppressed by overbearing meddlesome parents, plot twists, a pivotal scene in the forest, and secret messages, except that the former is a midsummer’s nightmare set in WWI and interlaced with delicate Asian symbols. 

Pauline (Hermia), our first lover, is a disenchanted orphan from an illegitimate relationship who escapes an arranged marriage in China. She’s terrified that her future husband will be unbearable as he’ll be chosen by her wicked stepmother. It’s enlightening that arranged marriages were a significant part of early 20th Century Chinese culture employed to gain status and wealth. Without a sizeable dowry, women had few options for a marriage where they’d be secure.

Our second lover is Camille (Titania), who is viciously abused by thug husband, Jean-Paul (Oberon). Camille’s only hope for happiness and freedom seems to be to find a new match. 

Theo (Demetrius), Pauline’s cousin, is the third lover. Theo joins the non combat Chinese Labourer Corp (CLC) at the front to delay his arranged marriage in China, where he is a translator. Pauline, concerned for Theo’s safety, follows him accompanied by Henri (Demetrius), Theo’s journalist friend. 

Bottom, an ass in Dream, is Camille’s bicycle with a trailer. There is a Puckish character, if Puck were a psychopath, who lusts after a woman in the dark woods. The lovers spend a night in the forest with dire consequences, more dangerous than the cast of Dream dreamt of.

The story opens with Pauline and her Uncle Louis (Theseus) moving all the way to Paris to open a Chinese antiquities shop, La Pagode, that was based upon a real store in Paris. Pauline and her uncle develop a sweet daughter-father relationship, as they straddle two cultures as temporary immigrants to France. All this to launch Theo into taking over the business, but Theo has a shameful secret.

Pauline drinks gallons of tea with congenial clients, occasionally flicks a duster, polishes a vase, and hangs a price tag. I wish that my job in my family’s antique shop, which was sweaty, grimy, involved heavy hauling and haggling, was half so pleasant as Pauline’s; except for the war, of course.

Camille, battered by Jean-Paul, lives in the countryside of France in Noyelles-Sur-Mer next to a CLC camp. She witnesses them living in miserable conditions. Marching past her both to and from clearing up the trench warfare to make the land usable for farmers again. 

There are rapid-fire switches between Pauline’s and Camille’s voices, so tracking which characters are together and their shifting locations involved mental agility and re-reading, but it was worth it.

The inspiration for Chang’s book were the 140,000 CLC shipped to Europe to do the toughest and dirtiest jobs, like removing spent and live munitions from the trenches–sometimes losing their lives to explosions. They also pulled out corpses of animals and soldiers–dying from infections. 

After the Armistice the CLC were held against their will until their three-year contracts were fulfilled. WWI will mark 110 years since its start in 2024, but it has taken too long for these injustices to be unearthed. Hopefully, we can learn from this atrocity of a war that spanned four years and took nine million military lives.

“To learn from the mistakes of the past, we need accurate accounts. This chapter in world history, along with its long-term, global consequences, remains incomplete without the stories of woman and nonwhite combatants and workers,” Chang cautions at the end of her book.

The “Author’s Note” section was incredibly intriguing. Her insights about the little known oppression of earnest CLC in WWI will spread much-needed awareness through her words. In that section, Chang’s writing style is at its best and flows effortlessly. 

I live on a steady diet of nonfiction so historical romantic fiction is an anomaly for me, but books like Obasan, by Joy Kogawa, Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood, and The Porcelain Moon employ fiction to say the things that are too difficult to say in nonfiction.  

Chang’s next book, The Phoenix Crown, co-written with Kate Quinn, who wrote the blurb on the captivating cover of The Porcelain Moon, will be released in September 2023. Will it be another historical fiction embedded with Asian culture and overtones with a romantic plot? Seems likely from the title, but we will have to wait until fall to find out. I would expect it will follow the pattern of Chang’s previous book with two voices, only because that would make sense for two authors not living in the same place.

Born in Taiwan, JANIE CHANG has lived in the Philippines, Iran, Thailand, New Zealand and Canada. She writes historical fiction with a personal connection, drawing from family history and ancestral stories. Chang has a degree in computer science and is a graduate of the Writer’s Studio Program at Simon Fraser University. She is the author of Three Souls and Dragon Springs Road.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ HarperAvenue (Feb. 21 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 352 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1443464821
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1443464826

Cathalynn Labonté-Smith grew up in Southwestern Alberta and moved to Vancouver, BC, to complete her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia (UBC). After graduation, she worked as a freelance journalist until present. She became a technical writer, earning a Certificate in Technical Writing from Simon Fraser University. She later went to UBC to complete a Bachelor of Education (Secondary) and taught English, journalism, and other subjects at Vancouver high schools. She currently lives in Gibsons, where she is the president and founder of the Sunshine Coast Writers and Editors Society, and North Vancouver, BC. Her new book, Rescue Me: Behind the Scenes of Search and Rescue (Caitlin Press) is a British Columbia bestseller.