Red Memory uncovers forty years of silence through the stories of individuals who lived through the madness of the Cultural Revolution. Exploring how this era defined a generation and continues to impact China today, Branigan asks: What happens to a society when you can no longer trust those closest to you? What happens to the present when the past is buried, exploited, or redrawn? And how do you live with yourself when the worst is over?
Compelling ... The Cultural Revolution is a subject that is doubly hard to humanize: Branigan attempts to profile people shaped by a still-sensitive political disaster, and one that occurred more than four decades ago, with memories that have inevitably warped with time and self-censorship. The people she decides to profile are now well into their 60s and 70s — and some are recalcitrant subjects, preferring to forget the past rather than recount it ... Some of the profiles in the book thus feel a little thin, the key players in certain events either unwilling to share more and admit their culpability or suspiciously made unavailable at the last moment, almost certainly under state coercion. One gets the sense reading Red Memory that Branigan is racing against time as much of the public record is erased or roped off ... An exercise in attempting the impossible, of trying to reconstruct what it was like to live through and then live with one of the most brutal periods of modern Chinese history. Branigan comes closer to doing so than anyone else has in the English language.
The stories the author relates are not, strictly speaking, secrets—most of the people Ms. Branigan interviews are already looking for listeners; they want to be heard, to perform, to share, to connect—and she gives them the opportunity to do that for a foreign audience. This is a book about their search for meaning, even when the search comes up short ... Ms. Branigan is a sympathetic narrator, but not a naive one ... Evocative.