A family epic—originally published in China in 1998—that winds its way across generations of Chinese history, not always coherently.
Transport Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo across the Pacific, and you have some sense of the setting for Xiaobin’s allegorical, sometimes fantastical novel. It opens on a curious note, as young Yushe, sensible and sensitive, undergoes a lobotomy so that, her mother insists, she might “preserve the girl’s mental health and allow her to live out the rest of her life as a normal person.” Fortunately for the development of the novel, Yushe seems little worse for the wear, while her two sisters—two, naturally, being the requisite number of sisters in a fairy tale—have travails of different kinds. Xiaobin, a writer in her mid-50s who has published several books in the People’s Republic of China, sets Yushe’s adventures and misadventures against a broad canvas that begins at the end of the 19th century and the last years of the Qing Dynasty and that ends at the turn of the present century. As the tale moves across five generations, it is not always entirely clear where in time it is, and the Western reader may be challenged in keeping its 26 major characters and many more minor ones sorted out. (The dramatis personae at the end of the book is of some help.) Punctuating the text are closely observed scenes, as when one character, shot down by police, notices a car driving away “like a soaring bird whose flapping wings stirred up the filth and dust as it flew off through the still night.” More typical, though, are rather surrealistic moments—involving, in one instance, steamy sex without regard for the fine distinctions of gender but with inventive use of flowers—and aoristic, dreamlike episodes, the better, it appears, to disguise the author’s only partly subtle critique of the Chinese state at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Lyrical, sometimes difficult, and engaging—an allusive, sidelong view of Chinese history by a writer who has seen many of its darker moments.