Tough read. Almost impossible to rate. Did I (3) like or (4) really like this novel? No. I endured it. Do I think it (5) amazing? Yes, yes ... that I do.
It is, quite possibly, the most brutal, dispiriting, sad, anger-provoking, depressing novel I've ever read.
I feel as though this novel is trying to teach me so many things, but my lack of knowledge of China's history, specifically China's Cultural Revolution, is hampering me from understanding it fully. That's at the thematic, symbolic level. And possibly even at the plot level - I am still confused about Gu Shan's crime and political position. (But I suspect it almost doesn't matter.)
Where I'm going now, in my head, is to why I read. This novel--or more precisely, trying to review this novel--makes me ask myself why I read. One of the reasons I read is to understand worlds that I will never experience first-hand, or to experience worlds in which I will never live.
That's why speculative and historical fiction are of such interest to me.
The thing about this novel is, there's nothing speculative about it. 1984 was speculative. This is real-world 1984
When fiction takes one to very dark places, places of horror and brutality--like China circa 1973 or Nazi Germany circa 1940--the depth to which one can experience that world becomes a marker of the quality of the fiction, I think. Do you stick with it - bear it, like the torture that it is (and what the hell does that say about me, anyway?)? How often must you surface to breathe the calming and soul-restoring fresh air of the knowledge that "it's just a book"?
With historical versus speculative fiction, "it's just a book" doesn't usually work, because immediately after that thought comes "but this really happened to real people." And then, empathy floods.
I kept trying "it's just a book" here - and then Yiyun Li dragged me back under with the sharp, stabbing pain of baby girls being thrown out like yesterday's chamber-pot contents; vocal cords being severed and kidneys removed while the political prisoner was alive; the gruesome death of a 6-yr-old's pet dog and his later betrayal of his father (link? yes, of course); children being burned in a house fire, more ... so much more.
I would not last for a split-second in a totalitarian regime. Despite my current contempt for my government, I still have unfettered freedom to rant away about them on facebook and in person to just about whomever will listen.
I would not last in a totalitarian regime not because I'm brave and would stand up for what I believed and protest and then be killed; but because I'm not, and I would do what I needed to do to survive. I would get swept up by a gang thinking there would be safety in numbers, and thinking that what we were doing was protesting in a "safe" way. And it would turn out not to be safe at all. I would underestimate the brutality of my government, and behave as though it wasn't happening, not be fully aware of what was happening - think I/we were higher up on that slippery slope than was the reality. I would be frightened or traumatized into silence.
Or maybe I would just curl up in a ball, I would grow inside myself into a hard stone of patience and isolation and I would wait it out. Hide and obey, repress my true feelings and self. Possibly, I would kill myself - as so many did during the Cultural Revolution. Or even more likely, I would do something stupid, either deliberately out of misguided desperation or misplaced trust, or inadvertently out of sheer ignorance. A betrayal of someone I loved, perhaps; or revealing myself to someone I loved who then betrays me.
All of these things happen in this novel. And more. This is what this novel is about, what happens to people under brutal dictatorships. This is what the reader endures: experiencing first-hand how people disintegrate, how desperate they become, how they live and love and treat each other. What they think is moral, just, right; how they behave, how they learn, how they grow from childhood into adulthood and what kind of adults they become, if they even become them. How the political system self-perpetuates; how it shapes, represses, constructs and destroys individual human beings.
Not to deny that history/culture/other forces don't play a role in how behaviour is expressed. China certainly has a problem with baby girls that pre-dates the Cultural Revolution and has lasted to this day - that is not something you can blame on a specific regime. There is variability even among the masses in how the effects of political repression are expressed, no matter which side you're on. So you get a Gu Shan, and a Wu Kai - flip sides of the same coin. You get a Teacher Gu and Mrs. Gu contrasted with Old Hua and Mrs. Hua. You get a Bashi and a Nini and a Tong. You get unextinguishable individualism amidst the collective.
If there is a tiny shred of hope in this novel, it is in the Hua/Nini story line. The Huas return to their earlier, much easier, lives as vagrants, beggars -- the lives they spent rescuing baby girls who had been thrown away to die. Their last rescue is of 12-yr-old Nini (and the baby? what happened to the baby?). Nini: whom we first meet eating the flour wallpaper paste from the notices of Gu Shan's denunciation/execution because she's starving and rejected by her family, deformed and a tight knot of anger and hope and opportunism. She represents survival in this world, and its future, too.
I wanted to start this review (but clearly didn't) with the image presented early in the novel by Teacher Gu. He speaks of a blessing his first wife sends on the eve of his marriage to his second wife (a message that, Yiyun Li makes clear, Teacher Gu does not share with his second wife who cannot read): keep each other alive with your own water
. It refers to a fable about love and I think, it speaks to the bleak history and perpetual sadness this novel describes overall:
two fish, husband and wife, were stranded in a puddle; they competed to swallow as much water as they could before the puddle vanished in the scorching sun so that they could keep each other alive in their long suffering before death by giving water to their loved one. p. 54
Futility - the futility of love, of revolutionary acts, of life under totalitarian rule. At the end of the novel, Teacher Gu makes a second important statement, this time a soliloquy prompted by the visit of a neighbour (I was not clear who this was - ?) and the imprisonment of his second wife for her role in protesting their daughter Gu Shan's execution:
Your wife [the neighbour's]...is the same creature I have seen in my own wife. And my daughter too--you may not know her but she was just like your wife, full of ideas and judgments but no idea how to be a respectful human being. They think they are revolutionary, progressive, they think they are doing a great favor to the world by becoming masters of their own lives, but what is revolution except a systematic way for one species to eat another alive?
From keeping each other alive to eating each other alive. That is the essence of this novel's message.