I Am China
New York Times book review
23 Nov 2014

Review by Mara Hvistendahl

This novel opens with Iona, a young British translator fluent in Chinese, being given a trove of letters and diary entries written by a Chinese couple: Jian, a Beijing punk musician seeking political asylum in Britain, and Mu, a poet from a poor family in rural southern China. Jian has fled China after distributing a manifesto at a show arguing that "our leaders … forced themselves into our dreams," while Mu is in personal limbo, first keeping vigil by her aging father's bedside, and then joining a rock band's tour of America s a slam poet called Sabotage Sister. Both lovers, we soon learn, are running from the past.

Their story unfolds in layers, as Iona translates debates over whether Jian's politics can ever be reconciled with his personal life and allusions to the child he and Mu lost. Iona, whose own love life is a "cold, plastic pantomime of raw entanglements in the dark," is soon consumed by the couple's tale. "If you spend enough time reading someone else's thoughts," she muses, "after a while their thoughts begin to infect you. Your grasp on yourself becomes tenuous." But it's unclear how much of a grasp on herself she had to begin with; Iona is flatly drawn, and the London love affair that develops alongside the Chinese ones is comparatively mundane. Jian and Mu's vividness nevertheless more than makes up for Iona's absence.

This is Guo's third novel in English, and descriptions are beautifully rendered. Jian's head aches, she writes, "like a torn drum."



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