Hill, an English teacher in China (A Bend in the Yellow River, not reviewed), spins a marvelously credible and affecting tale about a colony of human barnacles shipwrecked through decades of turbulent Chinese history and determined to weather the onslaught of modern capitalist changes.
The villagers of Shaoyang, in the Hunan Province, once dreamed and fought for the socialist paradise heralded by Mao and Zhou Enlai, whose exhortation to take Communism to the moon and stars prompted the locals to rename the local factory Number Two Space Rocket in his honor. By the early ’90s, the counterrevolutionary “troubles” of Tiananmen Square have been squelched and the local factory, once the livelihood of the entire village, abruptly shuttered as an anachronism. The news provokes Party Secretary Li to drape subversive banners (“The Privileged Officials Masturbate Over Blue Movies”) from the window of his apartment house and hang himself, sending ripples of alarm and despair throughout the lives of his neighbors. Hill gradually focuses on the fierce circle of Old Zhu, once a zealous party member and “reeducator” until he was jailed himself; his ferociously hard-shelled wife; and their son, Da Shan, a former student demonstrator who, imprisoned after the June 1989 uprisings, returns to his hometown a rich man. Patiently, and with incomparable devotion to his characters, he illuminates each life, from the marital heartbreak of Madam Fan—who still practices her Beijing Opera arias on the balcony and dreams, improbably, of love and wealth for her only daughter—to Da Shan’s former lover and co-conspirator, Liu Bei, fallen into prostitution at the Drink and Dream Teahouse. Centuries of Chinese history are packed into each small, sure act of Hill’s villagers, and priceless observations floated over vociferous family meals.
Hill displays an intimate, artfully nuanced knowledge of Chinese customs, bureaucracy, and character in one of those novels that seems, like its people, to have found its own rare way.