July 28, 2005

Mostly set in China

33. I picked up a copy of Shanghai Baby, by Zhou Wei Hui in a local charity shop a few weeks ago, just because it seemed serendipitous; but then I realised that it was banned in China, so I would have to finish it quickly. It’s only banned because it’s slightly racy, or possibly because it’s not very good.
It’s usually a bad sign when a novel is written in the first person about someone around the author’s demographic who happens to be writing her first novel. In this case the first novel is intended to be full of metaphysical thoughts and raw sex, and clearly so is the one being read by your humble reviewer. Unfortunately the sex isn’t all that raw and the thoughts aren’t all that metaphysical; the book’s failing is that it constantly tells you how profound and exciting it wants itself to be, and never even approaches its own goals.
The affected style and stilted prose might just be a weakness of the translation, but the overload of self-conscious contemporary references can be blamed entirely on the author. On the plus side, it includes some interesting descriptions of Shanghai, and of China and a certain set of the Chinese. It was irritating in the way that Human Traffic was irritating; there is little that I find less entertaining than vapid party people who think they are existentially obsessed.
34. Len Deighton is always reliable, and Winter did not disappoint me. I’ve read lots of his sets of novels over the years [ever since Dad made me read Goodbye Mickey Mouse, in an attempt to wean me off Biggles books. He was right, it really was a grown-up Biggles book]. Damn good spy-thriller novels, mostly; can’t go wrong.
Winter is an unsentimental but sympathetic story about a German family from 1899 to 1945, and principally the tale of one son’s rise to a position of pwer as a Gestapo lawyer. Ruthlessly plotted and with the meticulous knowledge of German history and politics that you come to expect from Deighton, it never gets so technical that you start to skim a couple of paragraphs here and there. This story is tense, gripping, and crammed with detail. I was even prepared to read it again, as it was the only book I had with me in China and I finished it on the middle weekend. Fortunately I was able to find plenty of books in English once I got back to Hong Kong.
35. And the book that I bought was The Kitchen God’s Wife, by Amy Tan. This is because I’m already a fan of Amy Tan, and it seemed right to buy a book set in China and written by a Chinese-American author [I don’t know if that description is politically correct or accurate, but it will have to do]. Again, I feel like you can’t go wrong with an Amy Tan novel. Sure, it will follow a similar theme to the others: the hardship of living in China during certain periods of history, and the contrast between the lives of the born-in-China generation and the born-in-America generation; but as long as you don’t read two in a row, this really isn’t a problem. I would say the same thing about Len Deighton, by the way.
Amy Tan is writing about people and relationships as well as about China; she writes about how someone copes with barely imaginable difficulties: being sold into one’s husband’s family, running to escape an ever-changing enemy, living through wartime and trying to pick up the pieces afterwards. The Kitchen God’s Wife absorbed me through two flights and a hideously long delay at Hong Kong airport – I’m grateful.