In brief: Seven linked stories of varying length about life in New York City for the children of immigrants.
The good: It’s raw, blunt and graphic. No sugar coating here – it’s sour!
The not-so-good: Is this really what kids get up to these days? (Which makes me Officially Old™ if I’m wondering).
Why I chose it: Heard a lot of great buzz, plus it has Lena Dunham’s approval.
Setting: New York City and China
Rating: 8 out of 10
Sour Heart – a book that we all knew was going to be different and exciting, given the advance praise by Lena Dunham and Miranda July. I was itching to get my hands on it and pretty much started reading once I’d bought it. I don’t know what I was expecting in retrospect; perhaps to be blown away by each story? Well, I was but in ways that I wasn’t expecting. Sour Heart is compulsive, greedy reading that will shock and fascinate as you read about the children of Chinese immigrants living on the edge of the poverty line.
This is a short story collection, but the seven stories are interlinked. You will meet characters later on that were in the background of earlier stories and hear if they did manage to rise above poverty. You don’t even have to read them in order, but I think it helps. The stories become more graphic as you delve towards the middle with a sense of hope towards the end. One thing you will notice as you start to read is Zhang’s fondness for run on sentences. The opening sentence for ‘We Love You Crispina’ is a good sized paragraph with liberal use of commas. Normally, this would really annoy me as I tend to lose track of all the thoughts contained in the one sentence but Zhang makes it work. It helps that each section of the sentence sort-of links to the previous part and it sounds quite natural in the first person. I found it easy to look over this as I continued reading, but it might be worth checking out the first couple of pages to determine if the book is right for you.
Zhang really gets into the minds of her characters with the flow and conversational style of writing. Her characters certainly keep no secrets from the reader! Most of the narrators are fairly young children (about 10 or 11) and wow, they have the kind of sledging, insulting vocabulary that would put most adults to share! These kids are wild, swearing and sexually exploring where others are playing with Barbies and PlayStations. They are hardened to so much – sharing a room with the rest of their families or multiple families, seeing other kids steal and do drugs and yet they are still outsiders. Each child is hyperaware of their status – they don’t look the same and their parents aren’t the same as other American kids. They watch the American dream on TV but they are already cynical that it won’t be on offer for them. It’s sad, but the stories don’t get hung up on that. Each kid is a fighter, determined to stake out their mark in any dubious way they can. They can’t be sweet, sour is the only way to make it in this country. But they know that their parents love them and the family bond is strong, even when desperation and poverty force separation and cause arguments.
Each story in Sour Heart is super powerful, almost eye watering. Each story is packed to the brim with observations and emotions. It’s brutal in places (‘The Empty the Empty the Empty’) is jaw dropping in the portrayal of bullying a young girl and boy in the name of…sexual exploration? Weird childhood games? I can’t really describe the motivations of these kids, but it was shocking. Yet ‘The Evolution of My Brother’ is poignant and sweet in exploring the changing relationship between a brother and sister. If the intention is to provoke emotion, Sour Heart certainly does so. I liked Zhang’s style and her willingness to take on any subject. Sometimes I felt the exploits of these kids was too much and I just hope that it’s fiction! But I couldn’t stop reading and I would definitely check out what Zhang writes next.