“It really looks like diamonds, doesn’t it? The British, when they stumbled upon this crater they thought they’d struck it rich. Even when they realized their mistake, they still named it Diamond Head because of the headlands. It’s magnificent, isn’t it? The way it juts into the sea?” -Diamond Head
If you’ve ever been to the Hawaiian island of Oahu you’re probably well acquainted with the name Diamond Head. For those of you who aren’t, Diamond Head is basically the most famous volcanic crater in the world. Yes, the world (it’s probably one of the most photographed ones too). Located on the southeastern coast of Oahu at the end of Waikiki Beach and overlooking the Pacific Ocean, you’d have to be pretty oblivious to miss this beautiful sight. And Diamond Head just happens to be the aptly named title of Cecily Wong’s debut novel.
In a manner one knows and expects from noted Chinese-American novelist Amy Tan, Wong also makes the females of her novel its heart and soul. Sure, there are some interesting male characters present throughout the book, but it’s the females whose stories the reader is most captivated by. The women, whether it’s the secrets they keep or the struggles they endure, leave you wanting to keep reading ahead.
For her first attempt, Wong definitely “went big,” in terms of her epic sweeping story. The novel is told through the voices of four women-Lin, Amy, and Theresa Leong (grandmother, daughter-in-law, and daughter) and Hong, a trusted servant and close friend of Lin’s and the Leong family for decades. It begins in China at the turn of the last century with the Boxer Rebellion and its aftermath a focal point of the story early on. The Leong name is associated with immense wealth and in some ways it affects all of the characters as the reader will see as the story progresses.
One of the things I enjoyed most about Diamond Head was learning about elements of the Chinese culture which are heavily incorporated throughout the novel. And even once the Leong family was firmly established in Hawaii, the Chinese culture remained a strong force, embodying the true definition of “melting pot” (as was the case with the many other ethnic groups that settled in Hawaii). In many ways Wong’s storytelling reminded me of Alan Brennert’s novel Honolulu (another great historical fiction novel about Korean immigrants and the lives they forged in the Aloha state).
I only had two slight critiques of Diamond Head. Each chapter is told through the voice of one of the Leong women (or Hong). That I didn’t mind. What I did mind was that the time periods were constantly shifting (one chapter was the 1960s, another the early 1900s, the next during the 1960s, the one after that the 1940s). I totally understand and appreciate the need for flashbacks, but I thought the novel lost some of its fluidity with the constant chronological jumping around.
My other critique is that when Pearl Harbor happened, the Leong family didn’t seem to encounter any racism/generalizations whatsoever. I know that the Leong family name was quite well-known and respected on the island of Oahu, yet in 1940s America, and especially after the infamous December 7 attack, there were many people who didn’t care if you were Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. If you looked “that way” (i.e. Japanese) you were the enemy. I’m not pretending to say I’ve studied the immediate aftermath of Pearl Habor on Oahu from a historical standpoint, but I have read enough historical accounts that said that many non-Japanese, Northeast Asian individuals were treated unjustly on the West Coast here in the United States solely due to their physical looks.
Cecily Wong has accomplished something most of us spend all of their lives dreaming about-writing a 300 page epic novel in which she succeeds in capturing her reader’s attention from its initial pages. Diamond Head is intriguing, at times gripping, and most of all inspiring with the strong set of female characters that are at its helm. If you are a fan of historical fiction, you will definitely enjoy Diamond Head.
Disclosure: I was given a complimentary copy of the book but all thoughts and opinions expressed here are as always my own.