The inner life of a highly passive heroine, as seen against the turbulence of her country’s recent past—in a first English translation from an acclaimed Chinese writer.
Ni Niuniu first appears as an adult woman who has secluded herself in a carefully groomed garden, eschewing contact with others and pursuing the purity of her musings and making small personal drawings. As if to explain the enigma of herself, Ni tells us that when she was a small girl in a sturdily “dysfunctional” family, her father was emotionally remote and sometimes violent, while her mother lovingly nourished her daughter’s heart and soul. In grade school, Ni suffers the torments of Mr. Ti, who will first molest her and then declare his unfettered love during an exotic dinner. But at this stage Ni’s primary sensual interests are in women, their breasts and softness, which are offered to her tenderly by, among others, her girlhood friend Yi Qui and neighbor Ho. The erotic encounter with Mr. Ti introduces her not only to the sexuality of men but to lust as well: an experience she rather enjoys. As she reaches college, she befriends Yin Nan, and, during the years up to and preceding Tian’anmen Square, she’s suffers through a handful of traumas. Her mother dies of heart disease; beloved Ho dies in an apartment fire; and her first authentic love, with Yin Nan, is quickly concluded with his escape from China to Germany. While Howard-Gibbon’s translation is smooth and readable, there remains, perhaps from the original, an allusive poeticism that lends the prose a kind of indistinct, hazy generality—a haziness that, conjoined here with Ni’s already poetic spirit, deprives her character of sharp definition. Still, the persisting reader will find her insights and aphorisms engaging and occasionally provocative.
An intriguing exploration of the contemporary consciousness of an alienated, urban Chinese woman for whom current history matters less than the reliable comforts of love, nature, and solitude.