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…