20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Giramondo Publishing, Huo Yan, literary fiction, New Zealand, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020

‘Dry Milk’ by Huo Yan

Fiction – paperback; Giramondo; 92 pages; 2019. Translated by Duncan M. Campbell.

A book set in New Zealand, written by a Chinese woman, translated by a scholar from New Zealand, and published by a small independent press in Australia, Huo Yan’s Dry Milk has all the trademarks of an unusual book.

Thwarted ambition

Easily read in one sitting, it’s a tautly written tale of a Chinese immigrant whose three decades in Auckland has not lived up to the ambitions that drove him to begin a new life in a foreign country.

John Lee, once a librarian in Beijing, has spent the past decade running an antiques shop in his adopted city of Auckland. It’s the kind of rundown, overstocked business that people only visit to escape the rain.

He is married to a woman who is seriously disabled and remains nameless throughout the story. He only married her as a means to escape China in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution when it was discovered she had distant relatives in New Zealand. He treats her with cruelty and disdain, using her as a prop in his shop to prey on the kindness of customers.

He placed a glass jar on the counter beside her and made up a sign that read: ‘HELP THE MENTALLY DISABLED: PLEASE GIVE GENEROUSLY’. Taking out two crumpled ten-dollar notes from his pocket, he placed these in the jar, along with some coins. At the end of every day he would count the money in the jar, sometimes finding that as much as twenty dollars had been donated. At such times he would give the woman a peck on the cheek, as if to reward her, his dry lips brushing her withered skin.

Life holds little excitement for him beyond the occasional gossip session with others in the ex-pat Chinese community and his penchant for cooking elaborate Western meals, albeit on a tightly controlled budget.

When an opportunity arises to make a little money renting out the spare room in his house to an attractive young Chinese student, Jiang Xiaoyu, he takes it. But from the outset it’s clear his motives are nefarious, for he tells Jiang that his wife is his sister, then spends an inordinate amount of time spying on her, listening to her through the walls and cooking her meals in a bid to win her trust.

When yet another opportunity presents itself to make even more money, this time through an export business selling powdered milk to the Chinese (hence the title of the book), John Lee grabs this too — though it does take him some time to decide whether he can afford to do so. But the scheme, along with the student who lives in his house, is not everything that it appears to be…

The human cost of greed

Dry Milk is a dark tale about identity, community and greed. As a portrait of Auckland, it fails to portray the city in a friendly, accepting light. John Lee regards it as a “slow city” offering little opportunity, and even though he has connections with the proactive Chinese Community Hope Association (and is later nominated for an executive officer role), he struggles to fit in.

The narrative is underpinned by a creepy air of dislocation, alienation, voyeurism and misogyny. There are no likeable characters here, but their flaws, foibles and weaknesses are all-too-human. When John Lee finally gets his (violent and disturbing) comeuppance, it’s hard to know whether to cheer or feel pity for him.

There’s no doubt that Dry Milk is an exceptionally well-crafted story by a skilful writer. Powerful and thought-provoking, it looks at the human cost of treating others as commercial opportunities and leaves a rather sour taste in the mouth. I won’t forget it in a hurry

Lisa Hill has also reviewed this novella at ANZLitLovers and so has Tony at Tony’s Reading List.

This is my 5th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter and my 19th for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought my copy from my local independent book store last August for $22.95.

Author, Book review, China, Fiction, Hong Kong, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Digital, W. Somerset Maugham

‘The Painted Veil’ by W. Somerset Maugham

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 186 pages; 2009.

I do love a good W. Somerset Maugham novel and The Painted Veil, first published in 1925, is regarded as one of his best.

The story is largely set in Hong Kong, before shifting to mainland China, and centres on a troubled marriage between two young Brits who are vastly different in personality, temperament and upbringing.

Walter Fane is a bacteriologist who is tightly buttoned up, the type of man who can’t really talk to others much less express his emotions, but he’s in love with his new wife, Kitty, even though he never quite tells her of his feelings.

Kitty Garstin, meanwhile, is extroverted but shallow and self-centred. She rushes into marriage with Walter, not because she’s in love, but because she’s desperate to escape her domineering mother and fears being “left on the shelf”, aged 25. She’s already turned down dozens of marriage proposals and is worried her younger sister will upstage her by marrying first.

The marriage between Walter and Kitty, of course, is a mistake. In Hong Kong, where Walter has been stationed, cracks begin to appear in their relationship, and Kitty begins an affair with Charles Townsend, the Assistant Colonial Secretary, who is married with two young children.

It is when Walter discovers his wife’s adultery that the novel comes into its own.

Unexpected reaction

Walter does not react the way one would expect. While outwardly dull and seeming to lack emotion, it appears that he is an astute observer of human behaviour and knows how to manipulate people to his own ends.

He issues an ultimatum: if Kitty can get Charles to divorce his wife, then she is free to remarry; or she can come with Walter to mainland China where he has agreed to take charge of a cholera outbreak, putting both their lives at risk.

Of course, Charles turns out to be a coward and won’t divorce his wife, leaving Kitty with only one option: to accompany the husband she has wronged into a potential deathtrap.

Portrait of a cruel marriage

The Painted Veil is a rather good example of Maugham’s penchant for writing about cruel marriages and people tortured by love (or an absence of love). His technique is rather old-fashioned. The narrative, for instance, is completely linear, which is refreshing when you read a diet of contemporary fiction that seems preoccupied with flashbacks and multiple storylines. And his prose, as always, is simple, elegant and clear.

I got completely absorbed by this portrait of a mismatched marriage and loved the soap opera-ish element to it and the ways in which the characters behaved so abominably, often against expectation. For instance, who would think dull, strait-laced Walter would have it in him to plot his wife’s murder by forcing her to live in a town consumed by a cholera epidemic?

The ending is a bit of a let down (the 2006 movie adaptation starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts is much better), but on the whole The Painted Veil is a compelling tale of love, betrayal, revenge and redemption and confirms Maugham as one of my favourite writers.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, Corsair, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Yan Lianke

‘Dream of Ding Village’ by Yan Lianke

Dream-of-ding-village

Fiction – Kindle edition; Corsair; 352 pages; 2011. Translated from the Chinese by Cindy Carter.

I read Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village while lying by a pool on the Greek island of Rhodes and I have to say this did not make for a good holiday read — it was far too grim and oppressive to truly enjoy while soaking up the sunshine.

Nevertheless, it’s an important story — and one that needs to be told if we are to learn anything about the value of our health, prevention of disease and the importance of proper regulated medical care.

It is set in a village in rural China devastated by the AIDS virus, which has been spread by the unfettered and wholly unregulated business of blood banks. These banks, which are run by blood merchants, pay poor peasants meagre sums for any blood they donate. Sadly, they reuse needles and other equipment, and thereby contaminate donors so that, before too long, an entire village is suffering from “the fever”.

This book, which is narrated by the ghost of a dead boy, reminded me of Ma Jian’s rather brilliant Beijing Coma, especially in its depiction of a crude and corrupt health care system in which access is dependent not on need but on the ability to pay. It also reveals much about the modern Chinese value system in which everything — including blood — has been commodified in order to make profit.

This is quite an eye-opening, confronting and gruelling read, and definitely not one for the faint-hearted. It was longlisted for the 2011 MAN Asian Literary Prize and shortlisted for the 2011 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, China, England, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Suzanne Joinson

‘A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar’ by Suzanne Joinson

Lady-cyclists-guide-to-Kashgar

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 384 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Suzanne Joinson’s debut novel, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, is a fascinating account of a trio of English missionaries working in a Muslim-dominated region of China in 1923. It also features a dual narrative, set in present day London, in which a young woman learns she has inherited an apartment full of belongings, including a pet owl, from a stranger.

A narrative composed of diary entries

The missionary side of the story unfolds in a series of diary entries by Evagaline English, who is penning a lady cyclist’s guide to Kashgar, hence the title of the book. Eva, as she is known, is in Kashgar, East Turkestan, with her sister, Lizzie, and their benefactress, Millicent, to help set up a Christian mission on behalf of the Missionary Order of the Steadfast Face.

The book opens in dramatic fashion when the trio, somewhere in the desert, stumble upon a woman giving birth by the roadside. They stop to help, and Millicent delivers the baby using a pair of forceps. The mother dies, presumably from blood loss, and a crowd of onlookers blame Millicent for her death.

‘They say we have taken the girl to give ourselves strength, and that we plan to steal the baby and eat it.’ Lizzie spoke quickly, in that odd, high voice. Her ability with this impenetrable Turki language is much better than mine.
‘She died in childbirth, natural causes, as you can all very well see,’ Millicent shouted uselessly in English, and then repeated it in Turki. Lizzie set about bringing water in our tankards and a blanket.
‘They are demanding that we are shot.’

From thereon in, the three women tread a dangerous path. Not only are they in a Muslim-dominated area of China — where other religions are not tolerated — they now have a baby who does not belong to them in their possession and are being charged with murder and witchcraft.

While under a kind of “house arrest” the baby’s welfare falls largely to Eva. Meanwhile militant-like Millicent is hellbent on converting the locals and dreamy Lizzie spends her days taking photographs. The narrative charts the tensions between the trio and the local community as it rises from resistance to calamity. More interestingly, it also charts the tensions between the three women, each of whom has a secret to keep.

A present-day story set in London

The present-day narrative, which is told in the third person, follows Frieda, a woman who lives alone in a South London apartment. Frieda has a busy job that involves lots of travel; she’s estranged from her mother; and has been involved in a long-term affair with a married man that is unravelling at the seams.

Then two startling things happen to her, which turn her life upside down: she finds a homeless Yemeni man living on her doorstep and befriends him; and then she receives a letter informing her that she has inherited a council flat full of property, including a caged owl, belonging to a woman she doesn’t know. According to council records, the woman is Frieda’s next-of-kin.

As you can tell, these two narratives are poles apart, but part of the mystery and enjoyment of reading A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is trying to determine the link between them — and it’s not as obvious as one might think.

Satisfying storytelling

Joinson writes each thread in a different prose style — the first has an old-fashioned feel and is reminiscent of the period in which it is set, the second is more contemporary in tone and style. And while some readers might find this juxtaposition jarring, I quite enjoyed moving backwards and forwards in time like this, although I much preferred the missionary storyline, probably because Eva’s voice was so engaging. I also enjoyed the judicious use of cliffhangers, which keeps the momentum going.

As I read this book I felt that I was going on a rather intimate journey, because Joinson captures periods and settings so vividly that exotic places, such as Kashgar, come alive on paper. Her attention to detail — especially in terms of historical facts and cultural references — pay off without you ever feeling as if she’s shoehorned in a bunch of research just to get the “flavour” right.

And while the title is somewhat of a misnomer (there’s not much cycling in this book at all), A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is a gorgeous read, tempered by a lovely sense of wry humour, that whisks you away to another world. It’s peopled by a cast of unforgettable characters and covers their journeys — physical, emotional and metaphorical — with care and compassion. It’s a perfect rainy day read.

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, China, Jan Wong, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘Chinese Whispers: A Journey into Betrayal’ by Jan Wong

ChineseWhispers

Non-fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 320 pages; 2010.

Journalist Jan Wong is a third-generation Canadian of Chinese heritage. In 1972, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, she became one of only two Westerners admitted to Beijing University, where she studied Mandarin. She was 19, impressionable and a proud Maoist, so when a fellow student, Yin Luoyi, told her she wanted help fleeing China for the United States — a Maoist “crime” — Jan did not hesitate to tell the authorities.

In one thoughtless, misguided moment, I destroyed someone’s life. […] At the time I did not give it much thought. I certainly did not understand the enormity of what I’d done. I recorded the incident in my diary, and forgot about it.

Thirty-three years later Jan decides to return to Beijing — dragging her husband and two teenage sons with her — to look for Yin Luoyi. She knows she may never find her — “How will I find a stranger in a country of 1.3 billion?” — but feels compelled to try, if only to keep her conscience at bay. But with no plan of action and just a 28-day stay, it truly seems an impossible mission.

Chinese Whispers details Jan’s quest to find the woman she wronged. But the engaging narrative also doubles as a travelogue as Jan describes a city — and a nation — in the grips of a radical transformation. It’s two years before the 2008 Beijing Olympics and buildings are being knocked down and replaced, seemingly overnight. There are new roads, new cars. The trappings of enormous wealth, rubbing up against poverty, are everywhere. This is not the city that Jan left behind all those years ago — tracking down old friends, foes and comrades is going to be more difficult than ever before.

In many ways this book reads like a detective story, as Jan slowly uncovers clues, stumbles over red herrings and runs into dead ends. But it is also a wonderfully evocative account of China’s recent history, from the Cultural Revolution to the present day, detailing the changing face of its political, social and economic systems. Indeed, it’s probably one of the best portraits of a nation trying to deal — or not deal — with its past that you’re ever likely to find.

Her narrative style is engaging and effusive and she has a lovely self-deprecating sense of humour. (I love that she calls her husband Norman “Fat Paycheck” in a nod to the Chinese name of Yulu that he was given when he lived in Beijing for some 20 years — apparently Yu means riches and lu means an official’s salary in ancient China, hence Jan’s tongue-in-cheek translation.)

Perhaps the only problem with the book is that it is now slightly dated — it was first published in Canada in 2007 as Beijing Confidential — but given China’s rapid pace of development, particularly in the past five years, that should come as no surprise.

Chinese Whispers is one of those books for which you need to clear your schedule — once you pick it up, the story is so gripping it’s a wrench to put it down. I made the mistake of starting it in a lunch-hour and then it was a race to get home after work to continue where I’d left off. Don’t say you haven’t been warned…

Author, Book review, China, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel, Vintage, W. Somerset Maugham

‘On a Chinese Screen’ by W. Somerset Maugham

On-a-chinese-screen

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Classics; 137 pages; 2010.

This is one of those books I probably would never have bothered reading had it not been for two important facts: it was a free download from manybooks.net and it was about China.

What I hadn’t clocked when I first began reading it was this: there is no narrative thread holding this book together. It is merely a collection of pen-portraits of various people, mainly expat officials, that Somerset Maugham met on his travels through China in the early 1920s.

There are 58 short sketches in total, and while each one is expertly and vividly drawn, it does not make for an effortless read because it is simply too disjointed. It’s almost like reading someone’s notebook rather than a published book.

Its importance, I guess, is more as an historical “document”, because Maugham’s “reportage” offers a glimpse of Europeans living in China during the interwar years. What he depicts is far from pleasant. These are people who don’t give a damn about the culture or the people. They simply cling onto the vestiges of home. No one bothers to learn the language or befriend the natives. Assuming that Maugham’s descriptions of British diplomats, Catholic missionaries and the like are accurate, this is a rather damning portrayal of the English abroad.

This is a good example:

China bored them all, they did not want to speak of that; they only knew just so much about it as was necessary to their business, and they looked with distrust upon any man who studied the Chinese language. Why should he unless he were a missionary or a Chinese Secretary at the Legation? You could hire an interpreter for twenty-five dollars a month and it was well known that all those fellows who went in for Chinese grew queer in the head.

Funnily enough, I get the impression that many of his sketches are tongue-in-cheek and that Maugham knows full well that these people are truly hideous in outlook and attitude.

Indeed, the book works best when Maugham offers up his own opinion of the Chinese natives (mainly “coolies”) and the places he visits (mainly villages along the Yangtze) — he seems far more accepting, interested and intrigued by his travel adventures than his British counterparts.

There in the mist, enormous, majestic, silent, and terrible, stood the Great Wall of China. Solitarily, with the indifference of nature herself, it crept up the mountain side and slipped down in the depth of the valley. Menacingly, the grim watch towers, stark and foursquare, at due intervals stood at their posts.

The book, however, is probably best read by genuine W. Somerset Maugham fans, those with a deep interest in China or budding authors wishing to learn the art of descriptive writing.

It was first published in 1922.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, Ma Jian, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘Red Dust’ by Ma Jian

Red-dust

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; CCV Digital; 336 pages; 2010. Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew.

I’m not a huge fan of travelogues, but I decided to read Red Dust based on the strength of Ma Jian’s superb novel Beijing Coma and Max Cairnduff’s excellent review.

I read it on my Kindle while in China last month, and found much of Jian’s descriptions, particularly of places I had been such as the ancient city of Xi’an and the Ghost City of Fengdu, very authentic.

The book chronicles Jian’s travels throughout China during the 1980s, a time in which travel for the average Chinese citizen was banned without the necessary paperwork.

He claims to go travelling because: “I want to see my country, every river, every mountain. I want to see different people, different lives. […] I just want to know it, see it with my own eyes.” But that is the sanitised version.

Before he hit the road, Jian was an official photographer for the propaganda department of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. He spent most of his free time as an artist. His house, a “crumbling old shack”, in Beijing was used by fellow creatives — writers, painters, poets and dissidents — as a secret meeting point.

He was labelled as a “questionable youth” by his bosses, who believed his “spare time activities” indicated he had been poisoned by “bourgeois Spiritual Pollution”. He escaped the clutches of Party Officials waging their Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution by forging his own travel documents and heading for the desert. (Just as well, because within a matter of years more than a million people were arrested and nearly 200,000 executed as part of the Campaign.)

It was 1983 and he was 30 years old. He had hoped to find spiritual enlightenment along the way, but as most travellers are wont to discover, Jian ended up learning a great deal about his country — good, bad and ugly — and the people who lived in it.

He was on the move for three years before he decided to return to Beijing.

Initially he revels in the freedom that travel provided:

Men are like swallows, when autumn arrives they long to fly away. Life moves with the same rhythm as the sky and the earth. It changes as sun changes into moon and day into night. If they told me to return to Beijing now, I would charge straight into those ramparts.  I would rather crack my skull and die than go back to moulder in that dank city.

But later, after some close encounters and a constant struggle to earn enough cash to get by, he realises that freedom is not the be all and end all. “Walking through the wilds freed me from worries and fears, but this is not real freedom,” he wrote. “You need money to be free.”

While I found Red Dust an easy read and enjoyed discovering more about China through Jian’s eyes, I did have some problems with the book.

The first — which can be dismissed as my own fault, rather than the author’s — was Jian’s narrative voice. I simply did not like it, because it often came across as arrogant and sexist (not dissimilar, in fact, to his fictional Dai Wei in Beijing Coma).

The second is simply the repetition of Jian arriving in a new place (usually broke and worried that the authorities will discover his papers are illegal), befriending someone, finding out about the local culture and then leaving. Once or twice is interesting, but when the bulk of the narrative is just relating a succession of these encounters, as different as each may be, it does become wearing. (Max Cairnduff’s review also finds this a major failing.)

Of course, that’s not enough to dismiss the book completely. There’s a lot in Red Dust which provides food for thought, particularly as it is set just as China’s economy was beginning to open up thanks to Deng Xiaoping‘s reforms. Jian thought that this would help his people, until he meets many rural folk who tell him otherwise. One chap says:

“A free economy won’t make bicycles or sewing machines grow from the earth. […] All the young men have left to find work in the cities. They come back at Spring Festival with new watches and big bags of clothes.”

I’d love to know how opinions and attitudes have changed in the 25 years since Jian went on his travels, but sadly Jian will never be able to retrace his steps to find out. He’s no longer welcome in his homeland and has been resident in London since 1999. His books are banned in China.

Author, Book review, China, Leslie T. Chang, Non-fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘Factory Girls’ by Leslie T. Chang

Factory-Girls

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Picador; 320 pages; 2010.

Since the 1990s China has undergone rapid economic development. It’s no exaggeration to say that practically every useful item that we buy in the West — for example, shoes, t-shirts, laptops and mobile phones — was made in a factory somewhere in China. But what of the people who work in those factories? What sort of lives do they lead? How is China’s rise to power affecting them?

Leslie T. Chang, a Chinese American, wrote Factory Girls as a means of exploring these very questions. She says she didn’t want to write about the harsh conditions in the factories, because that had already been done. Instead, she wanted to concentrate on the workers and tell their stories.

Over the course of two years she follows two young women, Min and Chungming, who leave their rural villages — what is known as “going out” — in pursuit of a better life earning a regular wage in a factory. In China, these young women (and men) are “rural migrants”. There are 130 million of them (one-third of which are female), representing “the largest migration in human history, three times the number of people who emigrated to America from Europe over a century”.

Chang says she specifically wanted the book to focus on women, because they “seemed to have the most to gain in leaving the village but also maybe the most to lose”.

Dongguan, in the south-west, was the logical place to start. It is one of the largest factory cities in China, with a population of almost 7 million people, 2 million of them rural migrants. Some 70 per cent of the workforce is female.

What Chang discovered was surprising. While I won’t go into specific details about Min and Chungming — you need to read the book to discover their ups, downs, successes, failures, and the corruption and dangers to which they are exposed, all of which is gripping stuff — in general the women did not see factory work as we in the West might view it. They saw it as an opportunity to better themselves, to escape their rural lives and to achieve some measure of career success.

They also enjoyed a more fluid job situation than their male counterparts, and were often promoted more quickly. They were more flexible, in terms of fitting in, because they “quickly adopted the clothes, hairstyles and accents of the city”.

But if you are female, rural migration is a double-edged sword:

If migration liberated young women from the village, it also dropped them in a no-man’s land. Most girls in the countryside were married by their early twenties, and a migrant woman who postponed marriage risked closing off that possibility for good. […] Social mobility complicated the search for a husband. Women who had moved up from the assembly line disdained the men back in the village, but city men looked down on them in turn.

Despite Chang’s insistence that she didn’t want to write a book looking at factory conditions, she does provide some interesting pen-portraits of what it is like to work in these places. I found it eye-opening: the factory, no matter what it produces, is pretty much a way of life. Employees sleep in factory dorms, eat in factory cafeterias, are treated in factory hospitals. One factory that Chang visits employees 70,000 people!

Typically, the pay is usually low and the working hours extreme. Privacy is non-existent, as this excerpt describing one of Chang’s visits, explains:

Girls stand in doorways combing their shampooed hair in hand mirrors; girls in shorts and flip-flops lug buckets of water to mop the dormitory floors. Residents of the upper floors lean on bare arms over balcony railings, checking out the goings-on at ground level and calling out to friends many stories below. A pop ballad blasts from a tape deck into the muggy morning. I love you, loving you, as a mouse loves rice. The air smells of laundry hanging out to dry; bleach, detergent, and damp are the perpetual scents of the Yue Yuen factory.

Interestingly, migration, once a last resort, has now become an acceptable, indeed desirable, route to a better life. Chang says today’s migrants are “younger and better educated than their predecessors” and that “they are driven out less by the poverty of the countryside than by the opportunity of the city”.

One of the girls she follows, Min, is able to support herself and her family in the countryside, buying them new things — a TV, furniture and so on — and upgrading their lifestyle in the process. It’s not uncommon for young rural migrants who work hard to buy their parents a bigger, better, more modern house or apartment.

But Factory Girls isn’t just a book about modern China. Chang includes a dual narrative that gives a nod to the past. This narrative focuses on her own Chinese roots, in which she returns to her ancestral village and learns about her family, particularly her grandfather who was assassinated after World War Two. This adds an extra dimension to what is already a superb journalistic endeavour.

This is a book that puts a human face to China’s ongoing economic development, but ultimately the book works because these are human stories that transcend time and place. And you don’t even have to be remotely interested in China to appreciate Chang’s effortless and engaging writing style. Highly recommended.

Author, Book review, China, Fiction, historical fiction, Pearl S. Buck, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster

‘The Good Earth’ by Pearl S. Buck

Good-earth

Fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster Ltd – Washington Square Press; 368 pages; 2004.

The Good Earth is the first in an “oriental trilogy” written by American-born Pearl S. Buck. First published in 1931, it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1932 and the William Dean Howells Medal in 1935. (Buck later received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938 — “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces” — the first American woman to do so.)

The story, which spans some 50 years, is a relatively simple one about a poor peasant farmer, Wang Lung, who works hard to become a wealthy landowner.

Set in the period before the Revolution, it depicts China under the reign of its last emperor and presents a fascinating glimpse of rural life, where famine, flood and locust plagues are never far away.

The book opens on Wang Lung’s wedding day. He has never meet his betrothed, O-lan, who is a slave at the House of Wwang (a family of rich landowners), but he is excited to have finally taken a wife.

She had a square, honest face, a short, broad nose with large black nostrils, and her mouth was wide as a gash in her face. Her eyes were small and of a dull black in colour, and were filled with some sadness that was not clearly expressed. It was a face that seemed habitually silent and unspeaking, as though it could not speak if it would. She bore Wang Lung’s look, without embarrassment or response, simply waiting until he had seen her. He saw that it was true: there was not beauty of any kind in her face — a brown, common, patient face. But there were no pockmarks on her dark skin, nor was her lip split. In her ears he saw his rings hanging, the gold-washed rings he had bought, and on her hands were the rings he had given her. He turned away with secret exultation. Well, he had his woman!

He takes her to his small house that he shares with his ageing father, and together the pair till the soil and tend to the crops.  O-lan, stoic and hardworking, bears him three much-desired sons, as well as two daughters, one of whom is mentally handicapped.

Their life together is ruled very much by the seasons, and when starvation threatens in the early days of their marriage they retreat to the city in order to beg for food and try their fortune earning money by means other than farming.

But through sheer hard work, and a little bit of good fortune, Wang Lung is able to secure the future of his family by buying up little parcels of land whenever he has enough silver, and by the time he is in his 50s he is the wealthiest man in the village. This, in turn, presents him with new problems, including lazy relatives who suddenly want a piece of his new-found wealth. And how Wang Lung deals with these interesting moral dilemmas provides a good dose of narrative tension.

Stylistically, the book has the feel of a much-loved fable. The prose style is slightly old-fashioned, without being clunky, but there’s never any doubt that you are in the hands of a master storyteller.

I enormously enjoyed following the course of Wang Lung’s extraordinary life. And while Pearl S. Buck obviously has a message to push — that hard graft reaps rewards — this doesn’t detract from an epic story that is filled with emotional highs and lows, joy and fear, lust and love, life and death.

The Good Earth is highly recommended if you are looking for an absorbing tale that highlights how ambition, honour and a smidge of good luck can overcome adversity but not necessarily solve all your problems…

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Publisher, Setting, Simon Lewis, Sort Of Books

‘Bad Traffic’ by Simon Lewis

BadTraffic

Fiction – paperback; Sort Of Books; 372 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Last year Bad Traffic was named as one of 50 books that publishers felt deserved a wider audience. This week, mid-way through the book, I discovered that that list had been whittled down to 10 books to talk about and Bad Traffic had made the cut. I’m not in the least surprised. This is a brilliant edge-of-your-seat thriller and one that presents the English countryside in a dark and disturbing new light.

Set in modern day Britain, the book is about a Chinese policeman, Inspector Jian, prowling the mean streets of rural Norfolk looking for the gangster he believes has murdered his daughter. He is accompanied by an illegal immigrant, Ding Ming, who was smuggled into the country in the back of a lorry with his wife as part of a human trafficking operation. Now forcibly separated from his wife — she has been made to “pick flowers” in an unspecified location — a young and naive Ding Ming finds himself on the run from his captors.

Together the Chinese duo make for a hapless pair of vigilantes. Jian, who does not speak English, finds everything about Britain rather sinister and foreboding, and regards the local police force with much suspicion. Despite his own police badge, he becomes a kind of foreign outlaw, with just one goal in mind: to deal out his own form of justice regardless of the consequences.

Meanwhile, Ding Ming, struggles to come to terms with the fact that he’s been sold a lie. He had thought coming to England would allow him to earn a lot of money to help his struggling family at home — after he had paid the exorbitant fee to his smugglers first — but now realises he has been caught up in a corrupt system run by corrupt men.

And while Jian is hell bent on finding Black Fort, the man at the head of the smuggling ring, Ding Ming wants to keep his distance from him. This tension between the two characters makes the narrative work on a new level, because, as a reader, you’re not sure which man to support and cheer on.

At times the plot strays into comedic territory as one or the other deals with an unfamiliar culture. For example, Ding Ming is especially scared of anyone in uniform, believing English police trade body parts of criminals for organ donation, until Jian points out that one set of uniforms belongs to an automobile roadside rescue firm and there’s nothing to be frightened of.

I also enjoyed this exchange between the pair while travelling by car along a motorway. Jian begins by asking, “What are you looking at?”:

“Cows.”
“Where?”
“They’re all over. You spot one and then you see lots, like mushrooms. I don’t like them. They look selfish.”
“What are you talking about?”
“One of those cows has more land than a Chinese family. It’s disgusting. And another thing. I look out and all I see are cow fields. Where are the vegetables? And where are the factories and the mines? It doesn’t add up.”
“The fields and factories and mines are in other countries.”
“They’re cow people.”
“What are you talking about now?”
“They’re like their big stupid cows. Their life is the easiest it is possible to imagine: they wander around their lovely park all day  going munch munch munch. Nothing to worry about, just munching the stupid grass all day long in a lovely big field. And people like me, we are the rats. We live in the ditch and eat shit and watch out for the hawks, and our life is bitterness and struggle, and we’re terrified all the time.”
“Rats don’t eat shit.”

Ultimately, Bad Traffic is a brilliantly paced and well constructed story that speeds along at a terrific pace. It has plenty of thrills and spills throughout, but underpinning it all is a quietly disturbing and shocking expose on an issue I’ve not ever read about in contemporary fiction — that of human trafficking and the terrible fate so many desperate people find themselves in. This is great entertainment, but there’s a dark moral to this story and one that leaves a deep impression long after the heart-hammering conclusion has been reached. This is definitely a story that deserves a wider audience — read it if you get a chance.