The Sisters Mao
By Gavin McCrea
Scribe, 2022, 560 pp., $32.99
Irish writer Gavin McCrea has carved a publishing niche for himself writing about what he calls “revolutionary wives”. These are imaginative biographical novels drawing on the lives of women who lived with some of the Great Men of left-wing history.
He has written two so far, with a third in the works.
He found success with Mrs Engels in 2015, in which he demonstrated his style: impressive writing combined with a disdain for his subjects. Indeed, if the subjects of Mrs Engels had not included Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, it probably would never have been published.
Now he has constructed a blockbuster that cuts backwards and forwards in time and back and forth across continents. It strings together the lives of a pair of radical English sisters in swinging 1968 London and Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, the key leader of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and her daughter, Li Na.
The thread that pulls these disparate narratives together is that all are involved in theatre. Unknown to each other, they are playing out similar psychological dramas, with terrible effects on those around them.
Iris and Eva in London are leading a chaotic, ill-formed Maoist street theatre troupe and Jiang in Beijing is tyrannically, indeed brutally, organising a ballet performance for the state visit of Imelda Marcos. Beneath that, there is a similarity in the tense relationships between mothers and daughters.
In passing, the reader is given a cynical description of the May–June 1968 student uprising in Paris and an intimate picture of Jiang Qing’s hypocritical life as part of the Chinese Stalinist bureaucracy.
Similar to Mrs Engels, McCrea starts with a bang. In that novel the reader was treated to a portrait of Engels’ erect penis early on. This time it is an LSD-drenched hippie orgy in London. It is a cheap way of drawing in the reader, after which sex is dispensed with.
As with his earlier book, McCrea’s abilities as writer are not enough to cover for the story’s frailties. There are many excellent passages but they do not total up to an effective narrative.
Even with dislikeable characters, a novelist has to permit them to harbour believable motivations while allowing the reader to see through them. Otherwise, they simply become cyphers for a moralistic puppet show.
It is clear what McCrea is driving at in The Sisters Mao: revolutionary politics comes from personal neuroses. But why he needs to illustrate that with the messiness of these particular characters is not apparent.
There is barely one pleasant word spoken between any two people in this book. Why do they stay together? Why do they do the many erratic and stupid things depicted? There is no explanation.
There was a massive battle between police and anti-Vietnam War demonstrators in London’s Grosvenor Square in March 1968. That should have been ready-made colour for this novel, except that Iris and Eva unbelievably refuse to attend demonstrations, saying they are not radical enough.
Reading The Sisters Mao, I kept wondering why McCrea chose his English characters and their silly theatre troupe.
The Weather Underground in the USA was a Maoist, ultra-left, bomb-throwing outfit that, as depicted in David Gilbert’s memoir, Love & Struggle, used orgies as political practice and loved LSD. Surely they would have been better subjects for this novel?
What McCrae cannot illuminate is why anybody in the era could have found Maoism attractive. Why did it make sense to them, either in China or in Britain; what was the zeitgeist?
Within China, the Cultural Revolution was a factional manoeuvre by Mao against his inner-Party enemies who had pushed him aside following his disastrous Great Leap Forward. It was also a social escape valve for young people dissatisfied with the Communist Party’s bureaucracy.
It made sense within China’s Confucian heritage and the shallow, distorted form of Marxism that Mao grasped from the hodge-podge of Stalin’s writings he had read.
Internationally, Maoism opportunistically presented itself as a left alternative to the Kremlin’s stodgy bureaucratism while quietly preparing for rapprochement with United States imperialism. That culminated in the 1969 violent border confrontation with the USSR, which was a form of Chinese "virtue signalling" to the US that they were open to a deal.
Maoist faux ultra-leftism intersected with the radicalisation around the Vietnam War and drew in some Western youth for a while.
When I finally closed this tome, I was glad to see the back of these annoying characters with whom I had spent too much time.
McCrae’s next outing is set in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thank goodness! I was scared he might pick on Rosa Luxemburg.