Do Not Say We Have Nothing sets out to tell the story of two intertwined families through the eyes of the youngest daughter, leaving safely in Vancouver while the rest of the protagonists suffer various hardships in 20th century China, including the Cultural Revolution (particularly dangerous for devotees of classical music) and the Tiananmen Square massacre. The Booker Prize committee loved it; I found it tedious and overly heavy with history. Sure, there are lots of clever observations, including the ongoing theme of sending secret messages through hand-copied books, but I would have liked more personal stories and fewer political ones, since they are abundantly told elsewhere.
Tag Archives: China
Death of a Red Heroine starts with the body of a national model worker and ends with a political vengeance against a so-called HCC, high-cadre child. In between is a leisurely investigation of an admittedly complex crime that takes Inspector Chen and his faithful sidekick Yu through bustling Shanghai, a detour through the traffic bureau, many restaurants, multiple poems and a karaoke session with spying undertones.
The ponderous historical briefings seemed less annoying than in the previous installment I read , but perhaps it was because I am more used to them. Still, if you like fast-moving action this is not the book, or the series, for you.
When Red Is Black is a rather mundane crime investigation into the murder of a dissident Chinese writer, who used to be a devoted Red Guard but switched to the other side. What sets the book apart is the setting, a communal building in modern Shanghai where the Iron Bowl government jobs can no longer compete with the riches of capitalism. The story is heavily laced with expositions of recent and not-so-recent Chinese history, which to me felt overly heavy and didactic. I enjoyed the nuanced characters of the detective and his superior, however.
It seems to be chic these days to talk about the street where you live, at least if you are a foreigner. Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road tackles a Shanghai street and presents many interesting characters. There is a resourceful and ambitious flower seller, who left her small village to make a relative fortune, but was not able to give her sons the education she dreamed of because of the strict residency permit rules. There is another woman, obsessed with making money and falling into what seems to us pretty obviously fraudulous schemes. And the folks who were evicted from the traditional houses to make way for juicy redevelopment initiatives also have a history of their own. A solid story of a society in transition.
In The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China, the author searches for his family’s long-buried treasures in a place he is never been (and no one remembers quite where it is!) Of course, the search is doomed from the start but it is an enjoyable adventure, mostly in the stories of how the porcelain art and industry developed in China over time — and how politics and wars again and again influenced them.
The Incarnations interleaves the story of a modern-day Beijing cab driver with tales of his supposed past lives sent by a mysterious stranger. The tales are heavy on Chinese folklore and seemed hackneyed to me — and relentlessly and pointlessly violent. I enjoyed the modern story better, as Wang battles the bureaucracy, fights with his wife, and struggles with his stepmother’s manipulations, but it’s only a small part of the book.
Buy Me the Sky: The Remarkable Truth of China’s One-Child Generations is constructed as a series of portraits of only children brought up in China, all known to the author, who for many plays a very assertive role in their lives, so don’t expect much in terms of a detached or general view. There is the graduate student who does not know how to unpack a suitcase or use a hanger (his mom always did that for him), the waitress who is shocked that her boss dares to criticize her poor performance (her parents never did), and the young woman who feels she must be perfect (so her parents don’t lose face through her). Each portrait is interesting, but they seem too hand-picked to have much of a collective meaning.