FRAGMENTED LIFE IN BROKEN CHINA
Village of Stone by Xiaolu Guo
Review by Aamer Hussein for The Independent
A young couple receive a gift one morning: a dead eel, posted to Beijing from a destination more than 1,000 miles away. For one of them, Coral, the eel performs a Proustian function. Memories return to haunt her, of her semi-orphaned childhood in a fishing village where neighbours committed acts of brutality, perversity and sadism, some perpetrated on her. Xiaolu Guo's exquisitely written and intricately constructed novel Village of Stone is an inventive kind of ghost story: symbols and figures from the past invade the present, and force the narrator to examine both in the cold glare of new insight.
Coral was brought up by her mismatched grandparents. Around her, the villagers continued to live in a dark age. Left unprotected, she was imprisoned as a sex slave by a mute from whom she escaped. Orphaned again by her grandmother's death, she turned to a young teacher for friendship: she initiated him sexually, only to become pregnant, have an abortion, and be exiled from the village at 25. While she looks back with hate, a stranger appears to claim a relationship of blood.
In its choice of themes, Guo's novel is oddly reminiscent of the works of Xiao Hong, who, 60-odd years ago, also portrayed, in her classics Market Street and Tales of Hulan River, a young couple's experiences of trying to survive in a big city and a female narrator's memories of rural poverty. Xiao separated town and city tales, and looked at villagers' lives from the relatively privileged point of view of a feudal family's daughter. Guo, on the other hand, is both observer and participant.
Guo deftly interweaves the various strands of her story. Images of 21st-century Beijing (Frisbees, 25-storey apartment blocks, fast food and sushi bars, erratic plumbing) are deftly contrasted with scenes from the time-locked village in pictures of Chinese life. The grim realities of earlier Chinese fictions left readers with the grit of tragedy between their teeth; Guo, however, is concerned with reconciliation, redemption and rebirth. Coral's trip to the places of her past signals release, telling her that the "present has only just begun".