Gosh, what a strange little book. I picked this one out of the mountain of advance copies available to me due to its awesome title, the fact that it’s a book translated from the Chinese and I don’t read enough books written by non-Anglophone writers, and the fact that the description made it sound like it might be a little bit like Out.
It is not like Out. But it’s still pretty cool.
So the deal is, there’s a Chinese woman, Li Xuelian, who gets pregnant with a second child in a strict one-child area. But she’s got this great idea — she and her husband can get divorced, he’ll keep their kid, she’ll have the baby, and then they, two adults with just one kid each, can get married and have two kids! Genius! Except that after they go through the divorce, the husband gets remarried. Wah wah.
From the title, I was expecting that either Li would kill her husband and then deny it (as you do), or she would all but kill him and make his life terrible. The latter is what she tries to do, certainly, but what actually happens is that he goes on with his happy life and happy new wife, and Li becomes the tortured soul.
See, Li tries to undo that divorce of hers, but the judge and the court decide against her. She thinks this is ridiculous, so she goes to higher-ranking person after higher-ranking person in an attempt to get her way and leaves a trail of fired, demoted, and/or terrified government employees in her wake, but never gets the recourse she seeks. She eventually ends up sort of accidentally lodging a protest at a national event and ends up attempting to return every year for twenty years, though without any success.
The story is satirical in the style of Candide, where thing after thing keeps going wrong, though Li never thinks that any of it is for the best. As her fight progresses through the government, we meet some interesting political players and see Liu’s take on the ambitious go-getter, the no-nonsense planner, and the dude who just wants to get through the day, all of whom are shaking in their boots when Li comes around because they just can’t figure out what she wants. Of course, at some point all she probably wants is an apology, but by then it’s way too late for that.
There’s some other kind of joke in this book that I don’t quite get, which is that the characters often speak in idiom after idiom, repeating the same sentiments with different metaphors. I understand that that’s what they’re doing, but I’m not sure why or if it’s a joke on the characters or just fun wordplay or what. I will clearly have to study up on my Chinese satire.
Oh, and then the ending… this whole book is just trolling its reader, I think.
I’m really not sure what to make of this book, as I’ve never read anything quite like it before, but I’m pretty sure I enjoyed my time with it. It has definitely inspired me to seek out more Chinese literature, though maybe just some straightforward fiction next time? We shall see. Suggestions welcome!
Recommendation: For readers who don’t mind books that make almost no sense even in the end.