Chloe Gong’s debut novel These Violent Delights is a Romeo and Juliet retelling like you’ve never seen before – complete with gangland politics, a monster-born plague, and more.
Chloe Gong’s These Violent Delights is one of the buzziest titles of the final few months of 2020 – and with good reason. It’s one of the most surprising books you’ll encounter this year, a story whose contours feel familiar, but that manages to tell an old tale in an entirely brand new way.
On its surface, Gong’s novel is a Romeo and Juliet retelling, but one that is utterly unlike any you’ve seen before. Here, Shakespeare’s tale of forbidden love and tragic misunderstandings is reimagined as an epic gangland opera. Juliette Cai and Roma Montagov are the heirs of the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers, respectively, the two warring factions struggling to control Shanghai in the 1920s, as Bolsheviks, French forces, and other foreigners pour into their land.
The two have a complex past – former lovers and friends, the circumstances of what happened between them remain a mystery for much of the novel, but the ramifications of those events are nevertheless felt throughout the novel. As the story begins, both Juliette and Roma are struggling to maintain their positions as heirs of their respective gangs and to balance their visions for a prosperous Shanghai with the realities of life in a city that is rapidly splintering into dangerous factions.
Things are made an order of magnitude worse when a dangerous madness breaks out in the city, causing infected residents to attempt to kill themselves by ripping out their own throats. Roma and Juliette must join forces – despite their mistrust and ongoing family rivalry – to find the creature that’s causing the madness and track down the person responsible for summoning it.
These Violent Delights is a story of present-day cooperation and previously forbidden love between rivals which, if discovered, could cost both Roma and Juliette everything they have. But it’s also a period story of a roiling, changing city that’s struggling to hold on to the things that make it unique even as it adapts to a constantly changing world. The shifting culture of Shanghai informs the day to day existence of all the characters in this story, as its competing gangs try to hold on to their territories and traditions in the face of encroaching French soldiers, Communist party members, and capitalist businessmen.
Though These Violent Delights is a Romeo and Juliet retelling, it’s not a paint by numbers adaptation in any respect, and you certainly don’t need to be terribly familiar with the play to enjoy this story. For fans of Shakespeare’s work, there are plenty of Easter eggs and shoutouts in the novel – certain characters who double as familiar figures from the play, plot elements that pop up in unexpected places, and similar structure and pacing throughout. But even if you barely remember much beyond the basics of the originally, you’ll find these characters compelling.
In fact, Gong’s Juliette has much more agency and power than her original namesake did, and she’s a primary driver of her own destiny in a way that Shakespeare’s heroine was not always allowed to be. As secrets are unraveled and the truth behind what drove Roma and Juliette apart is revealed, the characters are simultaneously growing closer to one another again, and there’s plenty of yearning and mistakes to go around. Will these two crazy kids work it out? Or are they also fated to the same doomed end as their Shakespearean counterparts? I can honestly say that I don’t know, and that’s a rather thrilling feeling as a reader.
Furthermore, These Violent Delights is teeming with sharp, original takes on Shakespearean archetypes and though you’ll realize who many of these figures are most likely meant to parallel, that doesn’t necessarily mean you know where their stories are going. Secondary figures such as Rosalind, Benedikt, Marshall, Tyler, and Kathleen all have their own arcs and agendas within the novel and are crafted with surprising care. Kathleen, a trans woman trying to make a place for herself in a hostile world that refuses to see her for who she is, is particularly fascinating, and I can’t wait to see where she – and her relationship with her sister Rosaline – goes in the sequel.
As a reader, I went into These Violent Delights knowing what to expect. I was very wrong, in the best possible way. The novel is a rich, surprising journey from start to finish, full of complicated surprises and well-drawn characters. When does the sequel hit shelves again?
These Violent Delights is available now. Let us know if you plan to give it a look!