In the first book, Pei is taken from her small China village, sold to work at a silk factory in a larger village, and uprooted to Hong Kong at the end. As the second book starts, it’s 1938. Japanese soldiers are marching through China and viciously winning all the battles, but they haven’t yet reached Hong Kong.
Pei and her young ward Ji Shen connect with other silk sisters. They take a room in a boarding house while Pei looks for work and gets teenage Ji Shen settled at school. Most displaced silk workers find work as domestics, and that’s where Pei’s story starts.
But it wouldn’t be interesting if everything went smooth as silk. So, Pei and Ji Shen have a few changes in circumstance throughout the story. And of course, the Japanese do reach Hong Kong and occupy the island.
Tsukiyama introduces more characters including a teenage Chinese boy who pulls a rickshaw, a kind English widow, and a few more nefarious sorts. She also circles back to characters from the first book, which brings a sense of closure for both Pei and her readers.
The threads between book one and two make strong connections to the two eras of Pei’s life. She works with cloth, silk, and thread throughout the stories. And the people who mean something to her remain vital parts of her life, even after she is no longer near them. These messages resonate with me in the time of COVID, since we’re not as physically connected these days.
I appreciate Tsukiyama’s writing style. It may be too slow and subtle for some people, but I felt immersed from the moment I opened both books. These days all I want is to read historical fiction and visit other times and places. Reading about a typical U.S. town in the recent past seems too fraught with pre-pandemic memories. So, I’m glad to find authors like Tsukiyama who have extensive catalogs I can explore.
If you want to escape to the other side of the world, The Language of Threads is a good choice. It does contain war time realities like food shortages and internment. But the strength of its heartwarming characters balances the sadness with strength.