I have been a big fan of Xiaolu Guo ever since I first read ‘A Concise Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers’ back in the early days of book blogging. I fell in love with the heroine and her thoughts on the UK from a Chinese girl who has never travelled. This was then repeated when I read ’20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth’, actually Guo’s first book rewritten, and I fell in love with the heroine as she takes us through Beijing and the world of the movie and film industry. This latest book had passed me buy until I saw it in the library.
UFO in Her Eyes is another look at life in the countryside of China and though set in the not to distant future of 2012 it seems to look at Guo thoughts on the way China is changing and what happens to the small villages where over 700 million peasants live and work. This isn’t a dull or lecturing book, but mainly it’s told with a rye knowing smile. It’s not a light book though and has a statement and looks at the situation and is in part saddening and thought provoking too.
Kwok Yun is a peasant living on the edges of Silver Hill Village when one day she witnesses a flying disc in the sky “a UFThing” she then finds a foreignerin the rice fields and shadows of the craft with blue eyes and yellow hair in a field who she looks after. Once these things are discovered by the villagers and then Chinese intelligence from Beijing armed with questions who interrogate the town. Kwok slowly becomes an instant celebrity and the town becomes famous. Soon what was once a small peasant village becomes a tourist attraction gaining chains of shops, a leisure centre (on top of a peasants fields without asking) and a huge statue in honour of the UFO and all of the villagers lives are changed though not for the better as you might think.
Once again Guo has created a wonderful female lead in Kwok, even if everyone really thinks she is a man. Though we don’t see too much of Kwok all in all as we meet a host of villagers who share the limelight. Guo has written some brilliant bad tempered and comical villagers such as the noodle man who only cooks you what he wants you to eat, the Butcher who starts to relive his days as a Parasite Eradication Hero and the leader of the town Chief Chang who wants to ‘demolish the weak demolish the rotten’.
Like with her books before it’s the bluntness and honesty that comes through Guo’s writing that I love, she doesn’t hold back is witty and says things like she sees them. I also love how with Guo’s work she uses different mediums for fiction. In ‘A Concise Chinese English Dictionary’ it was diary entries and letters. In ’20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth’ pictures are interspersed along with occasional pieces of script dialogue. In this case, as I briefly mentioned before, we have files, emails, interviews, meeting notes from village gatherings and plans of the future city. Yet still without giving you just straightforward prose every crazy villager comes to life as do some of their motives and how dictators are born.
I thought this book was marvellous and Guo is certainly becoming one of my favourite authors. I am now very excited about ‘Lovers in the Age of Indifference’ which is out in January and am expecting to be another gem. I haven noticed I haven’t read any Chinese or Japanese literature for a while and am wondering where and who to head to next. Where indeed?
I mentioned yesterday that Book Groups are great because they make you read an interesting and diverse mix of books that you might not normally read. The same has applied for me with the Man Booker Longlist. There are authors and books on in the Man Booker dozen that I would never have read if it hadn’t been for giving the list a go, there was one author though I was slightly daunted by and that was A.S. Byatt. I had tried to read Possession the year before last and not gotten too far with it, though this maybe because I had masses I wanted to read around the time (it’s pre-blogging but I did keep lists of what I read and tried to read in a notebook) it just seemed a little dense and clever for me. Would her latest novel be the same, would I be able to finish it as I swore I would read every page of every long listed book, would this be my downfall?
The Children’s Book is not what it first appears on many levels. For a start its not a children’s book though I do wonder what children would be let in for if A.S. Byatt decided to write them some. Anyway I digress. The book opens in the wonderful setting of the V&A Museum in London as two boys, Julian Cain and Tom Wellwood, watch another who himself is in awe of one of the pieces the museum holds. However the boy they are watching, who we learn to be Phillip, and whom Julian thinks “there’s something shifty about him” suddenly vanishes miraculously. Julian’s father being the ‘Special Keeper Of Precious Metals’ he is at home with the museum and so they tail the boy until finding him living hidden deep down in the depths of the museum. From this I thought we were going to get some kind of adventure novel however we don’t.
From this moment the boys take Phillip to Julian’s father and Tom’s mother who is the children’s author Olive Wellwood. Olive decides she will take the boy in and help him to become his dream of a potter. It is this twist that then leads us to what the book is truly about and that is the art and crafts movement in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s in fact the book spans the era of 1895 to the end of the Great War. During this huge piece of time we follow all the above mentioned characters and all they come across as their stories and journeys develop.
Now as you can see describing the opening chapter is quite an effort so to describe the whole book would possibly end up with me writing something half the length of the book itself which lies at a rather large 617 pages but you will whizz through them. There are some parts that are a little dull and are harder to get through. I found some of the politics and some of the industrial movement explanations and reactions to a little hard to endure. Also though A.S. Byatt is clearly a true mistress of words and creates the most vivid characters there are so many you can end up (without the use of a notebook) getting slightly confused by everyone you meet, who is related to or who knows who? I did occasionally also find that though I loved the descriptions that A.S Byatt gives us it could be a little much, even though oddly in parts the book can be a little rushed. For example describing one or two costumes at a midsummer ball is delightful, describing almost every one of the 100+ guests outfits for a few pages was a bit much.
You do get lost in the rich wording and prose, and though not the biggest fan of arts and crafts I found myself completely drawn into the world and into all the descriptions of the pottery and other crafts and how they were made and I wouldn’t have expected that. If I was asked to sum this book up in one word it would be ‘immense’ the cast of intriguing and delightful characters is vast, the time period the book covers it’s a very interesting one and one of great change, and the writing is simply beautiful. I can fully understand why it’s in the long list for the Man Booker and wouldn’t be surprised if it is in the shortlist.
It does seem I am slightly daunted by both the size of books (as with Wolf Hall and once again I was proven wrong) and authors who have a reputation that precedes them, if you know what I mean? Have you ever been put off by a book that was too big or was an author you had heard lots about that daunted you? Did you then read the book and get a surprise? Do you have any of these kinds of books on your TBR? What other A.S. Byatt books would you recommend?