Lin Kong, a doctor in the army, was forced to marry a village girl at a young age, with whom he had a daughter. The couple have never lived together - Lin just visits his wife and daughter for two weeks a year when he is on annual leave. Eventually he meets Manna Liu, a nurse at the hospital at which he works and they fall in love. For the next seventeen years, Lin asks his wife for a divorce every summer when he goes home, but although she agrees, once they get to court, she changes her mind and they leave still married.
Manna is in a difficult position. She is classed as an old maid, as women who reach the age of 28 are in China, so cannot find another man willing to marry her; all she can do is be patient and wait for the eighteenth year, when Lin can divorce his wife without her permission. During this time, she grows bitter and harbours a grudge against Lin, without him knowing. Eventually, Lin manages to get a divorce from his wife and marries Manna. But after all this time waiting, will the marriage be all that they had wanted?
Sadly, there is a dearth of Chinese literature available in English, which means that the English speaking world is missing out on a huge amount of talent from a country that makes up about 25% of the world's population. There's no excuse with this one though; the author is Chinese, but having lived in America for a number of years, has written a book set in China, but in English. This book is set in the 70s and 80s, in the time when China was pulling itself up by its bootstraps after the Cultural Revolution, during which Chairman Mao attempted to further consolidate his power by persecuting scholars. I'm pointing this out, because this book describes a period which many in the West still think is the China of today, which couldn't be further from the truth.
Lin is a gentle, unassuming man who wants what is best for everyone, but inevitably ends up hurting someone. He feels a great loyalty towards his wife, Shuyu, who cared single-handedly for his parents until they died and wants to see her well. But he also feels a great amount of responsibility for Manna, who will face a lifetime of solitude if he does not eventually marry her. There is also his daughter, Hua, from whom he feels he is becoming alienated. When he works out a way of bringing Shuyu and Hua from the countryside to live in the city after their divorce, he thinks that he has found a way of solving everyone's problems. I didn't particularly like Lin as a character though. His way of burying his head and hoping that everything will just work out for the best is irritating, even though completely understandable in the situation in which he has found himself.
Manna is not really any more likeable. Her neediness, although again very understandable, makes me wonder why Lin didn't run a mile from her. A reviewer from the Daily Mail likens Lin and Manna's story to Romeo and Juliet - I don't think he/she could have actually read the book, because the story is far removed from Romeo and Juliet. The only similarity is perhaps the innocence - Manna is a virgin and Lin has very little experience of women - but that is where the similarity ends. This is not a story of great passion, it is a story of a couple working towards what they think will be the perfect life, only to find out that that is not the case.
It is rare that I would recommend a book with characters that I don't particularly like - good characterisation is such an important part of any book. In this case though, the characters weren't key to the book. It is more about the social and political climate of the time and how it held so many people back from doing what they wanted. Divorce in China at that time was not as easy to obtain as it is now and many couples were forced to stay together in a loveless marriage, because personal integrity and social status were seen as more important than happiness. It is because of this that I think this book is worth recommending.
The style of writing is a little strange - the prose is simple and the English is not always spot on; for example, a lot of Chinese proverbs are translated directly from the Chinese, which just sounds weird in English. However, I suspect this might be deliberate on the part of the author to reinforce the Chineseness of the book and it actually does work very well.
This is not a cheerful book, so if you want something light-hearted, don't read this. It is a reminder of the hopelessness of life, of the lack of power to do anything to change the course of nature. Again, I have to disagree with some of the reviews I have read about this book, in which it was described as darkly comic. A comedy is the last thing this book is and I think you would have to be particularly hard-hearted to find anything to laugh at here. But I still recommend it for a glimpse into life in communist China.
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