X is for Xiaolu Guo

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My X is for Xiaolu Guo. 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is the second book I’ve read by this young Chinese author, and the second one where I’ve read it as if written by a man. It’s strange how it affects how you read books when you don’t know who’s written it (ah, Barthes will be having a field day) in the same way as you watch films differently when you don’t know anything about the actors/actresses in it. I for one, am wholeheartedly with Daniel ‘James Bond’ Craig, when he says that he prefers his private life to be kept private.

When I read Shopgirl, I said it was difficult for me to divorce what I knew of Steve Martin, funnyman and Oscars host, from what he was telling me as the writer.

The other book of Xiaolu’s I’ve read is A Concise Chinese-English dictionary for lovers, where part of the joke was that the title is obviously not concise. For both books, the main characters are female, and I was going to applaud the author for managing to express himself in a feminine voice, without reverting to standard male tactics to prove how sensitive they are. Of course, that backfired on me because I didn’t check first.
Perhaps I should commend her instead on how well she writes as an emotionally detached woman – modern and sometimes shocking in her language, without being needy and dramatic. No Jimmy Choos or Louboutins in sight!

In 20 Fragments of Ravenous Youth, Fenfang moves from her village to Beijing at seventeen. She then writes in snapshots of her life as she encounters boyfriends, cockroaches and menial jobs. It’s written beautifully – it’s stark and startling at times. One episode sees Fenfang visit her parents, and the journey takes her three days and three nights. It’s then that the magnitude of China itself, and Fenfang’s decision to come to Beijing, sinks in properly. I enjoyed that you don’t see every twist and turn, every lights out or first meeting for Fenfang. People come and go without fanfare – just as in real life. At the end of the novel she is ten years older – physically and mentally.

Her time in Beijing has been difficult, but somehow you feel that she is better for it – more fulfilled than she would have been if she’d stayed in the village she grew up in. Incidentally, in the book she describes this as so small it’s not even on the map, but she mentions that it’s home to thousands. It’s the little comments that mark the location out as different, and yet Fenfang wants the ‘shiny’ things in life – just like the rest of us.

I would recommend this to people who enjoy Murakami – it’s definitely the ‘lite’ version, but has the same minimalist feel to it. It’s also really quick to read – this took me a couple of hours on the train to read.

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