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I Am China, by Xiaolu Guo.

September 5, 2014

I Am China, by Xiaolu Guo.  Nan A. Talese (2014), Hardcover, 384 pages.


A unique and moving novel by a Chinese woman about the lives and love of a contemporary Chinese couple alienated and exiled from their world and the Scottish woman who translates their letters and diaries.

Iona lives an empty and lonely life with no purpose other than for her work translating Chinese writings into English. When she is given a mysterious packet of letters and diary entries to translate, she becomes deeply involved in the stories of the couple who wrote them.  As she assembles the couple’s stories, she becomes caught up intheir lives.   Jian has been a punk rock star in China, but he has been exiled for his revolutionary views.   As a refugee, he wanders through Europe.  Mu is the woman whom he loves and who has shared his life for years. A poet herself, she remains in China trying to make a life for herself without him while nursing her dying father. The couple finds it difficult to remain in touch, much less be reunited.  Much of the suspense of the novel involves figuring out who the couple are and what happens to them.

Xiaolu Guo established herself as a film producer and writer before leaving her home country and going to London in 2002. In addition to her film career, she has written ten novels, five in Chinese and five in English. Her new novel and her Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers reflect her awareness of the problems of translation and her frustration trying to get English versions of her earlier work.  In I Am China, she weaves together the stories of three major characters, not always revealing events in a chronological order. Her writing flows easily giving readers a view of contemporary China which few of us in western countries seldom see.   At times Iona and the Chinese couple seem very different, and I wondered why the author had included Iona.  Yet the narrative is hers as much as it is the Chinese.  All three of them are dislocated and troubled in a world where traditional ties have been broken and new ones difficult to establish. For each of them the future is vague and uncertain, as they love and lose, see parents die, and search for identity through writing.

I strong recommend this unusual book by a talented writer, who writes gracefully about people and situations she knows well.

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