20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), An Yu, Author, Book review, China, Fiction, Harvill Secker, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Braised Pork’ by An Yu

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 226 pages; 2020.

An Yu’s novel Braised Pork is a little bit of an enigma.

I came to it with a couple of preconceptions — both of which proved to be wrong:

  • I mistakenly thought the novel would be ideal for Women in Translation month (which runs throughout August), but it wasn’t until I began reading that I realised the author, who is Chinese and was raised in Beijing, writes her fiction in English.
  • I thought it was a crime novel because in the opening pages a woman finds her husband dead in the bath.

But it is neither of these things.

Instead, this is a novel about a widowed woman coming to terms with a new future that has opened out in front of her.

Its careful blending of mythic elements — I hesitate to describe it as magic realism, but it’s certainly got some of those qualities — with real-life trauma, gives it an unusual, almost esoteric, edge.

Dead in the bath

The story is set in modern-day Beijing and is told from the point of view of Jia Jia, a young woman married to a wealthy older man.

One morning in November she finds her husband, Chen Hang, crouching facedown in the bath, his “rump sticking out of the water”, his body stiff from rigor mortis. Next to him is a piece of folded paper bearing a crudely drawn figure — a fish’s body with a man’s head — something Chen Hang had recently dreamt about while on a solo trip to Tibet.

This sets Jia Jia on a quest to discover the meaning behind the “fish man”, a quest that becomes a journey of self-discovery, one that traverses grief, loneliness, family and freedom.

Perplexing story

The “fish man”, which is a recurring motif throughout the novel, lends a perplexing element to the story. This puzzlement is further increased by a scene in which Jia Jia’s bedroom floor transforms into a watery abyss.

Looking down at the floor, she discovered that it did not exist any more, and what replaced it was the surface of a deep sea, as if she was sitting on the edge of a ship watching the reflection of the starless sky in the water. The darkness rippled like silk.

In another scene, a painting becomes a portal into a parallel world. It’s all very strange. Later, on a quick trip to Tibet, Jia Jia meets others searching for the same mythical “fish man” figure and is astounded to find a sculpture carved into a tree trunk that resembles what her husband had drawn.

Meanwhile, as Jia Jia readjusts to life without the man who provided her with everything, including a luxurious Beijing apartment, she comes to understand her marriage was loveless, and that she had been prevented from pursuing her career as an artist.

Her loneliness and cool detachment — which is mirrored only by the dispassionate prose style — is soothed by Leo, a local bar owner with whom she begins a fairly relaxed romance, and family members who encourage her to sell up and move in with them.

Portrait of a city

For all its strangeness and aching melancholia and inability to pigeonhole as a particular type of literary novel, Braised Pork is a wonderful portrait of metropolitan Beijing, with its pollution, expensive property and rampant consumerism.

The emergence of new social classes and the conflict between generations as a result of changes to long-held Chinese traditions gives the story added depth.

In one scene, for instance, a character bemoans the need to buy his children things — a soft mattress, shoe cabinets for trainers bought in New York, a tennis racket, ballet shoes  — that were unimaginable when he was young. In another, Leo is frustrated by his parents’ refusal to link their bank accounts to their phone apps “for fear of their money being stolen” and their inability to understand that opening their windows to let in what they believed to be “fresh air” was detrimental to their health — he had brought them an air purifier for this reason.

On the whole, I enjoyed Braised Pork even though I didn’t quite understand what it was all about. I loved the cool, hypnotic prose style, the main character’s journey of self-discovery and the portrait of modern-day China.

I’ve not read any Haruki Murakami (apart from his non-fiction book about running, reviewed here), but many of the reviews I have seen online draw comparisons to his work. If you are a fan, then An Yu’s novel might be worth hunting out.

This is my 9th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it from my local secondhand book warehouse in April for $15.

Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Nora Webster’ by Colm Tóibín

Nora-Webster

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 385 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It will come as no surprise to long-time followers of this blog that Colm Tóibín’s latest novel, Nora Webster, would be right up my street.

I enjoyed his 1992 novel The Heather Blazing, when I read it more than 20 years ago, as well as more recent forays into his work, specifically The Blackwater Lightship and Brooklyn (both reviewed on this blog), and I have been saving up some of his others for “comfort reads” — because, to be frank, that’s how I view his writing: it’s often unbearably sad and melancholic but I find his lyrical style, its form and rhythm, quite comforting. And yet, when I read Nora Webster, I didn’t find it particularly comforting at all… I found it, well, let me be frank once again, kind of lacking. Let me explain.

A woman’s grief

The book, which is set in Ireland’s County Wexford (Tóibín’s home town of Enniscorthy to be precise) in the late 1960s and 1970s, is focused on one woman — the Nora Webster of the title — who has recently been widowed. Her husband, a school teacher who played an active role in local politics and was regarded as a pillar of the community, has died of some never-explained-to-the-reader illness and she is left to bring up four children alone: two of them — young adult daughters — no longer live at home, but there are two young boys under the age of 11 whom she treats in a distant but not unkind way.

Early on in the novel there are two pivotal moments: the first is the realisation that Nora is broke and must return to work, something she hasn’t done since becoming a mother; and the second is her inability to see the harm she might have caused her two boys when she placed them in the care of an aunt while her husband was ill in hospital — during that time she never once visited them or let them see their father.

Now, bereft and grieving, she realises she must get on with life without her husband by her side. Her return to part-time work is fraught with difficulties — mainly in the form of a bitchy boss, whose antics are so over-the-top as to be cartoonish — and she’s constantly worried about her eldest son who seems to have developed a stutter, but there is hope and redemption too, mainly in the form of music, when Nora rediscovers her ability to sing. (On more than one occasion I was reminded of last year’s Giller short-listed novel Tell by Frances Itani, in which music and song serves to sooth the loneliness of a woman grappling with the return of her husband crippled during the Great War.)

Character-driven narrative

There’s not much of a plot in this book — it basically follows Nora getting on with her new life as a widow and raising her two now-fatherless sons as best she can over the course of several years. It’s largely character driven. Typically, the characters — Nora, her children, her siblings and their families, her work colleagues, new friends and the local nuns — are beautifully drawn, and Tóibín builds up a realistic portrait of a close-knit community at a time when life (and gossip) was so much simpler than it is now.

Indeed, Toibin is at his best when he focuses on the minutiae of Nora’s daily life — the housework, her job, the care of her sons, her singing practice — and the sense of community that surrounds, and occasionally smothers, her: this is a woman who wants to grieve alone but Irish village life, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, refuses to let her do so.

It’s a slow, gentle read, and a moving portrait of one woman’s grief, but I kept wondering whether the narrative was going to build to any particular climax (it doesn’t). I felt as if the story was plodding along, going nowhere and I occasionally grew bored — I hate to say it, but even Tóibín’s lovely lyrical voice wasn’t enough to sustain me on the journey.

That said, I do need to issue two caveats. First, I read Nora Webster immediately in the wake of Mary Costello’s extraordinarily powerful debut novel, Academy Street, which meant it paled by comparison. And second, I did not realise the book was based on Tóibín’s own mother until I watched the BBC documentary Colm Toibin: His Mother’s Son just days after finishing it. I think having this knowledge in mind while reading the book would have certainly made me more sympathetic to the novel’s aims: to explore why Nora Webster — flawed and fragile — behaved in the ways she did during her husband’s illness and afterwards…

Author, Book review, England, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Mick Jackson, Publisher, Setting

‘The Widow’s Tale’ by Mick Jackson

WidowsTale

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 256 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The chairwoman of the 2010 Orange Prize, Daisy Goodwin, recently came out and said she was a bit sick of female novelists writing about misery. “There’s not been much wit and not much joy, there’s a lot of grimness out there,” she told The Guardian. That might be true, but fictional misery isn’t the sole domain of women writers. The Widow’s Tale, by Mick Jackson, is a case in point.

Jackson, who’s probably best known for his Booker shortlisted novel The Underground Man (which I haven’t read), focuses on an unnamed woman coming to terms with the death of her husband. She’s in her early sixties and has fled the marital home in order to escape the unrelenting and unwanted sympathy she feels she does not deserve. Holed up in a rental cottage on the windswept Norfolk coast, she cuts herself off from friends (she has no family — the couple did not have children) and tries to put her life into some kind of perspective. She does a lot of thinking, a lot of walking and hits the bottle more than she should. There’s the constant worry that she may, in fact, be losing her marbles.

Written in diary style, the book charts the narrator’s emotional ups and downs. The writing is rather effortless but goes off on bizarre tangents as she recalls incidents from the past. It takes a long time, at least one-third of the book, to discover that the grief she feels is not so much for her husband but for herself. Secrets are divulged, but once you learn what’s eating her, it’s hard not to think, is that it?

In fact, The Widow’s Tale isn’t that much of a tale. There’s certainly not much of a plot, and the only real character in the whole book is the narrator. Her husband is so hazily drawn that he is frustratingly unknowable. The same could be said of her best friend, Ginny.

But despite these flaws the book is very readable, perhaps because the prose style is uncluttered and to-the-point. And the narrator’s voice is completely believable, never whiny and often comic.

It’s not a book that will grab you by the throat, it’s too gentle, too subtle for that, but it’s a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of a woman on the brink of a nervous breakdown as she reflects on a 40-year marriage that was not all that it seemed.