I am China by Xiaolu Guo: A love story in fragments

I am ChinaXiaolu Guo’s ambitious new novel is neither easy to read nor to write about. It’s a jigsaw puzzle of a love story, chock-full of well-aimed barbs fired at Chinese politics past and present, and it takes some getting into but don’t let that put you off – it’s well worth the effort, a book that leaves you with much to think about.

Iona Kirkpatrick has been sent a package of jumbled documents, some scrawled almost illegibly on scrappy bits of paper. She’s a translator and the package is from a publisher with very little explanation of what the documents are about or what they plan to do with her translation. She begins to realise that the papers form a love story between Chinese punk musician Kublai Jian and Mu, his poet lover. In order to tell their story Iona must assemble the many pieces of the jigsaw, researching as far as she can given the impenetrability of Chinese internet censorship. Gradually their story emerges and with it clues to Jian’s identity. He and Mu met at university and are polar opposites – Jian expressing his anger though his politicised music and the manifesto which resulted in his expulsion from the country while Mu follows the Misty Poets whose work was carefully coded protest against the Cultural Revolution. His family is part of the political elite, hers is poor and ill-educated. He insists that politics is the only way to bring about change while she favours a quieter route. Iona thinks herself self-sufficient with her work and the occasional one-night stand when she makes clear that even breakfast is out of the question but as each clue is uncovered, each new piece of the jigsaw falls into place, she’s pulled further into the love story between these two, and what has happened to them since Jian was seized on stage by the police shortly after marching in the Jasmine Revolution. She desperately wants to bring them back together. It’s no longer just another assignment: it’s taken over her life.

Diary extracts, letters with the occasional photos and illustrations – not necessarily in chronological order – make this a fragmentary novel; one which turns its readers into literary detectives just as Iona becomes. You’ll find yourself googling the many references to Chinese politics and culture, wondering if there’s a real Jian out there. The passion and vibrancy of the letters, the aching loss and the chasm between Jian and Mu’s differing beliefs draw you into this sad story of lovers wrenched apart yet with a long history of estrangement. Guo pulls no punches in her depiction of the Chinese political elite, their iron grip and closely watching eyes. In the end, the message of the book seems to be the final line of Jian’s manifesto ‘I am China. We are China. The people. Not the state.’ A tough read, then, but a thought-provoking one.

13 thoughts on “I am China by Xiaolu Guo: A love story in fragments”

  1. Is the author still living in China? It sounds like an impossible feat to pull off – to write about these topics, to absorb the atmosphere of the period, and yet draw parallels to the present.

    1. She was born in China but lives in London now, Marina. It’s not an easy read but definitely recommended – a brave, impassioned book.

  2. This is the sort of novel that I am often pleased about having read, but shy away from actually reading. It reminds me of all the literature I used to read to teach – the endless puzzle of it, worthwhile but brain-crunching.

    1. I know what you mean and am a little worried that I may have put people off! The story is involving enough to make the effort worthwhile but it’s not something to take to the beach.

  3. lonesomereadereric

    Great review and I’m so glad you liked this novel as well. I read it last month. She gets in so much in this novel although it’s relatively short and I love how she slowly built up the relationship through the translator’s detective work. It certainly is a novel that leaves you with a lot to think about.

    1. Thank you, Eric. It’s such a clever novel, yet so heartfelt. I hope it reaches the audience it deserves. Pleased to have a comment from someone who’s already read and enjoyed it as I’d begun to think I may have laboured the ‘not an easy read’ point a bit too much!

  4. I’m still trying to come to terms with the notion of a Chinese punk musician. I would need to make space in my reading schedule to give this book the attention it clearly deserves but I think I’m going to try and do that after the Summer School is over as I am always interested in how a writer works with narrative organisation.

    1. Well, it seems that ‘punk’ is more associated with protest than the Sex Pistols in China – although John Lydon does make a cameo appearance, believe it or not. I hope you enjoy it, Alex.

  5. This sounds really intriguing. Perhaps not a novel for lockdown if it needs good attention, but definitely one for the TBR list!

  6. Pingback: Paperbacks to Look Out For in August 2015 | A life in books

Leave a comment ...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.