Sour Heart is a collection of seven short stories by Jenny Zhang. Zhang’s prose has a fresh informality that is exciting to read. Her stories are full of new imagery like her “oozy desire” to catch up to her parents in sacrifice to her anger when she feels like a balled up fist incapable of unclenching.

The first and last stories feature Cristina. Other stories are of the families that shared the same crowded living space with Cristina’s family or knew her family. One story goes back and forth from China to the US, and back and forth in time, recounting the cruel excesses of the Cultural Revolution when children turned on their parents. The stories are narrated by young girls, fourth-graders and high school students and often focus on the pressures parents place on their children through their own unending sacrifices, their multiple jobs and endless work to get ahead so their children can have a better life.

I think Zhang writes beautifully and admired her skill at crafting sentences and describing people and situations. She has an amazing ability to describe emotional turmoil and childhood angst. I would love to love this collection. But I can’t.

The narrators run together, how is Mandee different from Cristina? I would be hard-pressed to tell you. They all have parents who are hard working. They all have parents who place inappropriate burdens on them and use guilt to manipulate them. The parenting in these stories suck with mothers who may simply be mentally ill. There is precocious sexual exploration and damage. There’s this sameness that made the stories run together.

Then there is “The Empty the Empty the Empty” which made me physically ill. I put the book away and binge-watched TV because I could not stomach reading for several days. It’s a story of children sexually assaulting children in 4th grade. There is a lot of inappropriate and bizarre sexual exploration by the children in these stories and even with parents, one mother checking her daughter’s vagina to make sure she’s still a virgin. I don’t recall my friends and I checking each other’s genitals but it happens in several of the stories. I almost quit reading after “The Empty the Empty the Empty” and I might be a happier reader if I had. No story was as awful as that, but the dreadful sameness of the stories made me see them as possibly autobiographical, as though she has one story to tell over and over. I hope she continues to write, but I hope she leaves childhood behind.

Sour Heart will be released on August 1st. I received an e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.

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