I absolutely loved ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’ by Xiaolu Guo and so when ‘20 Fragments of Ravenous Youth’ arrived it went straight up to the top of my TBR. I was hoping that I would find the writing both touching and comical and that the protagonist would be again someone I enjoyed following the journey of and Guo delivered one hundred per cent.
‘So I was the 6787th person in Beijing wanting to act in the film and TV industry. There were 6786 young and beautiful, or ugly and old people before me trying to get a role. I felt the competition, but compared with 1.6 billion people in China, 6786 was only the population of my village. I felt an urge to conquer this new village.’ So Fenfang introduces us to her life in Beijing as a young woman searching for work, love and herself at the same time.
We follow her as she moves from place to place, man to man and random job to random job. I loved the descriptions of the parts she played such as ‘woman waiting on a bridge’ or ‘woman who says nothing in a café’. This is where I think Guo is just superb in writing her characters, in very few words she can conjure up a people by what they say, for example ‘oh heavenly bastard in the sky’ being on of the most common thing to come from the mouth of Fenfang. It conjures up a character very quickly that tries hard but is very much aware of how hard life can be.
Indeed Beijing life is what this book is mostly about though featuring the TV world that Guo has so much experience in. Reading the afterword I found out this was actually the first book Guo wrote, she has now gone back and rewritten it as it was ten years ago and she didn’t agree with everything the original heroine was saying. For a debut novel, even if reworked some what, it is a great set of twenty snap shots of a young life in Beijing dealing with the hardships as well as the great sides. I loved the fact Fenfang particularly loved living in the area full of pirate DVD’s and books regardless of all the cockroaches, the pro’s outweighing the cons. One scene involving Fenfang swallowing a cockroach and her doctor being completely unsympathetic and saying she wouldn’t die made me feel slightly ill and laugh in abundance at once.
All the other characters are very secondary in the novel, no one else features heavily and you don’t find out masses about the people she interacts with just short concise paragraphs that tell you all you need to know. For example, one of her boyfriends who shares a room with his whole family… and a dog that uses their bed as a toilet. Can you imagine sharing a room with your partner’s whole family? The book is as it says simply 20 fragments of Fenfang’s life in Beijing and its cultures. I found it fascinating, funny and in places unsettling. I think Guo is undoubtedly one of the best new writers around and everyone should give this ago, just don’t expect ‘a concise history’ part two, I think that’s why people have said its not as good, I think it’s a sign Guo isn’t a one trick pony.