Tombstone, by Yang Jisheng, and Three Famines, by Thomas Keneally

During China’s Great Famine (1958 to 1962), Yang Jisheng was called home to his rural town by a friend. The budding writer discovered his father starving to death. Destitute and immobilized, without a single grain of rice, he could not even fetch water and did not have the strength to strip bark from the trees for food. He was “starved beyond helping himself.” And Yang’s father was not alone. Famine was widespread, and it had transformed the countryside. Trees had been stripped of bark and ponds had been drained for the sake of the foul-tasting mollusks—a food which had never before been eaten.

Searing memories of that experience and his father’s eventual death spurred Yang, a Communist Party member and former reporter for the official Xinhua news agency, to begin his investigation and documentation. “I did erect a tombstone for my father, in my heart, and this book is made of the words I carved into that tombstone,” Yang explains.

A massive work, Tombstone is the result of two decades of reporting, gathering documents and interviewing survivors. Part history and part document dump, Yang’s study is repetitive and dense, and it fails to supply enough context for non-Chinese readers. Yet the imperfections in Tombstone almost add to its power. The accumulation of case-by-case documentation reveals a country that lost its bearings.