In brief: Iona, a translator, is asked to translate a mysterious collection of letters and diary entries between a Chinese couple. As Iona delves into the mystery of Jian and Mu, things gets very tricky and time is of the essence.
The good: I loved the way it was written with the letters and diary entries moving into the narrative, then a sneak peek into Iona’s life.
The not-so-good: I felt the tension slowed a little about three quarters of the way through.
Why I chose it: On the Baileys Prize 2015 longlist.
Publisher: Chatto & Windus (Random House)
Setting: China, England, Europe, USA
My rating: 8.5 out of 10
I Am China is a book I would never have found my way to if it wasn’t for the Baileys Prize longlist (this year’s longlist was one of the best for me personally in finding great stories). It combines so many things I find interesting in a novel – mystery, dual narrative and the liberal use of letters and diary entries. The plot is also a very interesting concept, with a translator as the main character. As Iona translates the documents belonging to Kublai Jian and Deng Mu, the reader finds out at the same time the mystery, complicating factors and unanswered questions. Despite being the ‘main’ character, Iona is pushed into the background as the vehicle of translation – which seems to me where she prefers to be.
Iona lives a lonely, solitary life, complicated only by random sexual encounters and hints of some pain in the past. When she is given a random jumble of papers and asked to translate them to see what she thinks of them, she is both intrigued and perplexed. What is the aim? Why has she been asked to ‘see if there’s a story’? She begins to translate and becomes entangled in the world of Kublai Jian, a punk underground musician in China and his partner, Deng Mu, a poet. Jian has left China, seeking refugee status in England after an incident which is gradually revealed. Jian’s past also comes to light, as does his struggle to obtain a sense of person and freedom in an immigration detention centre. Mu’s sense of loneliness at the loss of Jian is exemplified in a trip to the US, which has her wondering what her fate is in China. As Iona digs deeper and gains the interest of publisher Jonathan, things become a race against time with a number of political roadblocks.
Mu and Jian’s story was fascinating to me – the rebellion, the restrictions and the sadness. I wish that Mu could have played a greater role as she was a lovely character that I related to. Jian is angry, but that anger fades into hopelessness and despair. He seems to fade too with this into little more than a shadow. It was difficult to read, this angry young man with dreams of changing his country from the inside out running out of steam. Iona was the character that I couldn’t relate to. She holds herself aloof, away from things and it’s never clear why. She seemed to have plenty of opportunities for meaningful interaction during the book – her sister, brother in law, former professor and Jonathan – but she holds back from all of them and it wasn’t clear why, just a vague sense of unease lurking in her past.
The leap of faith where Iona comes to discover Jian’s fate was a little bit over the top for me, but it did make for good reading. I felt that just before that section, things had slowed down somewhat and the race against time combined with Iona acting on a hunch brought the pace back up for me. But what I loved most about I Am China was Guo’s writing. It’s beautiful, but not sentimental. She makes a lot of critical statements about the way countries act and treat their inhabitants, which raises food for thought. But it’s combined with a love story and a sense of history which stops the novel from being a political statement. I enjoyed I Am China, and will be seeking out Xiaolu Guo’s other books.