The Ventriloquist’s Daughter

This book first popped up on my radar after I read Bronze and Sunflower and was blown away by Helen Wang’s translation. I immediately went online to see what else she’d done, and The Ventriloquist’s Daughter came into my life.

Once again, Wang turns in a beautifully evocative translation that brings Lin’s story to life. Lin Man-Chiu is a well-known children’s author in Taiwan, and The Ventriloquist’s Daughter is the story of a young girl dealing with grief on multiple fronts. It’s also a somewhat surreal, mind-bending psychological twister that has more in common with The Twilight Zone than most modern YA books.

The forest had once been our playground, filled with our joy and laughter. We’ll live happily ever after in the forest, I had told my mama, believing it with all my heart. But after she died, everything changed. The forest became a memory of my lonely childhood, and since Baba returned, it had become a forbidden place.

The Ventriloquist’s Daughter focuses on young Liur, whose idyllic childhood is shattered when her mother dies and sends her father into a bottomless pit of depression. Her father, who was set to become a doctor at the local hospital and follow in his own father’s footsteps, can no longer bear the weight of his responsibilities and leaves to study in America.

He leaves Liur in the care of her grandparents and with a promise to return to her with a doll.

His “studies,” however, are soon abandoned, and Liur’s father embarks on a journey across the Americas. He heads south through Mexico, Central America, and South America, sending the occasional postcard home to Liur. The first bears the message “Gone travelling. When I get to the end of the road, I’ll turn around.”

Liur treasures these postcards, even though they don’t arrive with any regularity and eventually show up without any written messages at all. Without any sort of personalization, they’re just ghostly shadows of where her father has been and the road he’s on.

Liur is left chasing the dangling thread of hope. She clings to the hope that her father will return when he reaches the end of the road. And he’ll have a doll for her.

Years pass, and Liur grows up. Her father does eventually return, and he does have a doll. But the doll isn’t for her. While in Peru, he learned the art of ventriloquism from a mysterious teacher. The doll is named Carola, and she has a personality all her own. Before long, Liur becomes convinced Carola is alive and has a vendetta against her. She is consumed with a jealous rage.

Almost immediately, Liur’s life is upended because Carola strikes out at her at every opportunity. But is her father using the doll as a screen to mask his own true feelings? Or is Carola really alive?

The longer the story goes on and the more interactions Liur has with Carola and her father, it becomes less clear. At first, it seems as if her father is still grief stricken and lashing out at Liur in a misguided attempt to connect to his daughter. Yet evidence soon mounts that the doll is actually the one pulling the strings. And Liur is the only one who sees it.

Liur’s narration is soaked with the immediacy of her adolescent worries and fears. She suffers in a society (and family) that undervalues her gender. She feels orphaned through much of her childhood. She yearns to reconnect to her father, who is incapable of seeing her as the young woman she has become. She is tormented and mentally abused by her father and Carola. And all of her fears go unanswered. No one listens. No one believes.

Because it’s hard to discern Carola’s true nature, much of the story feels like a tense psychological thriller bordering on horror. Nevertheless, the book touches on and deals with some heavy themes: loss, grief, guilt, the fear of growing up, and living with abuse. These are certainly not lightweight topics for such a brief YA book, but Lin and Wang deftly make it all feel seamless.

I highly recommend The Ventriloquist’s Daughter, with the caveat that it should definitely be accompanied by some discussions to help young readers make sense of the plot and its themes.

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