A sensuous coming-of-age story set in a jungle during China’s Cultural Revolution, this historical novel flirts with the fantastic.
Su’s first novel translated into English tells the story of Lu Beiping, a 21-year-old Cantonese city boy who, along with many of his peers, has been sent to the countryside for “reeducation through labor.” As with many stories set in that era, conflict results from a clash between the protagonist’s sense of himself, his comrades, and locals whose customs are foreign. And what would it all be without a scoop of romance for good measure? Early on, Lu is coerced into a “ghost marriage” with his foreman’s deceased daughter’s spirit, which allows her younger brother to marry. His fellow “re-eds” (translator Woerner’s deft rendering) mock him, but the foreman promotes him to the position of cowherd. Now isolated from the group, he spends long, lonely days and nights in the jungle with his animals until a boy who lives in the wilderness nearby introduces Lu to his family. Lu discovers a group of lumberjacks led by an enchanting woman named Jade. Soon they fall in love. Lu loses his virginity to her and becomes an honorary member of the family. Companionship and his newfound self-reliance give him a sense of contentment and confidence he had yet to experience, but his past won’t let him escape so easily. Despite some overlong descriptions, odd vocabulary, and a clunky frame narrative, the plot moves quickly. The novel’s high drama is matched by complex, colorful characters.
This unique adventure of youth, identity, and the natural world intoxicates with overlapping mysteries.