The basics: I Am China recounts the lives of Jian, a musician and political activist, and his love for Mu. It's also the story of Iona, a British woman tasked with translating this disorganized collection of diaries and letters from Jian and Mu.
My thoughts: The premise of this novel is an intriguing one, and I immediately identified with Iona as she set out to try to make sense of this correspondence. This novel jumps across time and its characters move throughout the world. It isn't constructed chronologically, but rather Guo dips in and out of the present through Iona's translations in progress. Initially, I quite liked this approach of getting to know Jian and Mu with Iona, but the more I read, the more I began to question Guo's narrative choices.
Jian and Mu's lives coincide with many momentous times in modern Chinese history. As more and more of these moments unfolded, I began to question how universal these experiences could be among the Chinese. It started to feel as though Guo was cramming as many of these moments in as possible, and it distracted me from the characters.
While I initially was fascinated by Iona, I also grew frustrated with Guo's depiction of her. It became monotonous to read about her struggles with translation. I can appreciate the skill and difficulty invovled in translating Chinese to English, particularly when working with a mix of documents without any context, but Iona's parts soon hindered the momentum of the novel.
There were a lot of moving parts in this novel, and given the non-linear presentation, I was waiting for the end of the novel to bring an understanding of why Guo chose to structure the novel as she did. Ultimately, too much of this novel felt like a gimmick. By the end, the characters didn't feel authentic; they felt like a vehicle for Guo to offer commentary on recent Chinese history. Typically, I'm not opposed to fictional characters as a means of offering social or political commentary, but it didn't work for me here.
Favorite passage: "I only have one regret in my life, I wish I had learned to read and write." Then she sighs. And it makes me think of you and me. What has all our reading and writing given us?
The verdict: Despite liking the premise and an initial fascination with Iona, I enjoyed this novel less the more of it I read. Readers able to simply go along for the ride may find more to enjoy than readers who are as fascinated by narrative structure as by plot.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 384 pages
Publication date: September 2, 2014
Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy I Am China from Amazon (Kindle edition.)
Want more? Visit Xiaolu Guo's website.
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