I am China
Xiaolu Guo, 2014
Iona, a Chinese/English translator, is given a package of photocopied letters and diary entries from a local publisher in the hope that she can translate the pieces and that they might lead to something worth publishing. She finds out later, from the publisher, that he was given this package from Mu - a woman living in China - who said that the letters and diary were from a Chinese musician named Kublai Jian, who had been expelled from China for his anti-government stance and was seeking asylum in England. Mu had lost contact with Jian and was hoping for the help of the English publisher in locating him. Through the translations, Iona gets swept up in the stories of these two individuals and the events that transpire to keep them apart.
I found this book to be very difficult to rate and review. I wanted to like it much more than I did, but there was just too much about this book that bothered me or - worse - left me feeling nothing at all.
I think if this book had been only about Mu and Jian, I would have liked it a lot more than I did. I wouldn't have loved it, but I would have probably given it 3.5 to 4 stars. I really liked the character of Mu. I enjoyed watching her go from naive country girl to reluctant revolutionary over the course of the book. And I thought that her love for Jian felt real. Jian was a harder character to identify with, mostly because I'm really not the type of person to fight the system, which is really his defining characteristic. But it almost felt to me as though he was revolutionary simply for the sake of being a revolutionary, and that he really didn't care as much as he pretended to. [This is partially because his manifesto - when it is finally translated - didn't read as all that impressive. It's possible that it went over my head. It's possible that someone more familiar with the oppression of Chinese government might have found it profound. I didn't.]
But if this book had just been about Jian and Mu, I think I would have liked it. The problem is, a big portion of the book is given to the White European translator. And I really didn't like her. I wish that she had just stayed as an impartial third party - translating the letters and keeping her own personal life out of the story. Instead, the author chose to bring Iona front and center to the story, almost to the point where the book felt more like Iona's story than Mu's and Jian's. Here is the big problem: Iona is supposed to be around her early thirties (it might have mentioned her exact age at some point, but I can't remember, but at the end of the book her mother turns sixty, so that gives us a general idea.) But her world-view seems more like someone in her late teens. She has no friends, basically ignores her family, and the only two things that make her feel alive are her translations and one-night stands. (She more or less says this at the beginning of the book). She doesn't believe in relationships, instead preferring to sleep with strangers and then never speak to them again after, because she enjoys the power in it. Even her idea of who should would fall in love with if it was ever going to happen sounds like something an eighteen-year-old would think - "she thinks of falling for someone younger... more like an earnest but sexy young scholar." It isn't until she starts reading Jian and Mu's love story that she starts to even consider that a life of meaningless sex might not be all there is. And I get it. We're supposed to see her transformation from someone who doesn't believe in love to someone who realizes that there might be something missing from her life. But I just didn't care. Iona just seemed like a horrible, lonely, egotistical person to me, and I didn't care that she started to get better. I didn't care about her at all, and this is where the story lost me.
One other problem I had with this book was, quite simply, the writing style. This book was written in English by a native Chinese woman. But it felt like a book written in Chinese translated into English. It's not that the writing wasn't nice - there was some really beautiful imagery and a few really nice passages. But this was supposed to be a love story, and it felt completely lacking in passion. I feel like this is just the way things are written by native-Chinese speakers sometimes - more factual, less emotional. [Forgive me if I'm wrong - I'm not trying to generalize, I'm just trying to figure out why this story lacked the punch it should have had.] I wanted to fall in love with these characters, and instead I felt like I was just reading about people and having a hard time caring about them.
I felt that this book had a lot of potential, and it - for one reason or another - just missed the mark. It's not a bad book - I've read a lot of stellar five-star reviews on Goodreads - and it might just be that I missed the point. I do feel like native Chinese readers will get more out of this book than I did, simply because they will be able to understand better the political upheaval in the story. But as much as I wanted to like this book, it just didn't work for me.