Book Review: The Orange Tree by Dong Li

Thank you NetGalley and University of Chicago Press for the chance to read and review the ARC for The Orange Tree by Dong Li

Mini Review

I’m not a good poetry reviewer. People know how to write poetry reviews but I don’t! I think it would be more meaningful for me to link you guys to The Orange Tree, which aside from being the title is also the name of a poem by the writer.

The Orange Tree by Dong Li
The Orange Tree by Dong Li

As a whole, the book is a collection of poems that focus on the history of China. For me, what often out the most, especially the titular poem was the devastation that history itself brings.

His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. 

Walter Benjamin

The Angel of History can most clearly be seen in these lines by the poet;

More orange trees were planted after the Cultural Revolution.

They were no longer a rare delicacy, and more varieties appeared in the marketplace.

After China’s Opening Up, we never had time to meet again at Uncle’s house.

Uncle moved into a modern apartment building.

And no one ever picked oranges again.

Still the orange tree bore fruit.

The Orange Tree by Dong Li

And then of course is the horrific violence that we see in the Japanese invasion of China. ‘Tell our Daughters’ honestly became quite hard to read.

On the other hand, while a lot of this was really well executed, if the introduction hadn’t told me that this story was being told from the point of view of a child, I genuinely would not have realised that.

The formatting was really different and I would love to get my hands on a paperback to see how it plays out there.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.


Release Date: 31st March 2023

Dong Li’s The Orange Tree is a collection of narrative poems that braids forgotten legends, personal sorrows, and political upheavals into a cinematic account of Chinese history as experienced by one family. Amid chaos and catastrophe, the child narrator examines a yellowed family photo to find resemblances and learns a new language, inventing compound words to conjure and connect family stories. These invented words and the calligraphy of untranslated Chinese characters appear in lists separating the book’s narrative sections.

Li’s lyrical and experimental collection transcends the individual, placing generations of family members and anonymous others together in a single moment that surpasses chronological time. Weaving through stories of people with little means, between wars and celebrations, over bridges and walls, and between trees and gardens, Li’s poems offer intimate perspectives on times that resonate with our own. The result is an unflinching meditation on family history, collective trauma, and imaginative recovery.

The Orange Tree is the recipient of the inaugural Phoenix Emerging Poet Book Prize for 2023.

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