20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo
|20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo|
|Genre: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy|
|Summary: While absorbing and interesting, I found it difficult to relate to Fenfang, the heroine of this anti-picaresque. Feisty, determined, philosophical, she's a great central character. I fear the problem is with me, rather than the book.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 208||Date: January 2008|
|Publisher: Chatto and Windus|
Tired of life in her village, tired of the routines, the endless sweet potatoes, the silence in her family, of time, stretching inexorably in front of her, Fenfang packs her bags and travels 1,800 miles across China to Beijing. She intends to make her name in the film industry - and with the money she earns, she's going to buy life's shiny things. At her very first casting, Fenfang finds herself the 6,787th extra in line. Undaunted, she persists and stomps her feisty way through extra role after extra role - woman on a station, tired woman in a queue, dead woman in a field. She turns her hand to writing. She stomps her way through apartment after apartment, always scandalising her neighbours with unsuitable - sometimes Western - boyfriends. Heavenly Bastard in the Sky, Fenfang doesn't always feel as though she's much of a success, but she's inspirational to read about. Indomitable, even.
I kinda enjoyed 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth and then again, I kinda didn't. I was always absorbed, always interested, but I found it very difficult to become attached to Fenfang, despite her attractively feisty and determined character. I think this lack of connection stemmed from the simple fact that I didn't quite believe in her. Fenfang's life is very similar to Xiaolu Guo's own, and I couldn't quite work out to what extent 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is fictionalised autobiography and to what extent it is autobiographical fiction. This might seem like I'm playing with semantics, and perhaps I am, but however petty, I never really got comfortable with the book for this reason. Nevertheless, if you find yourself able to believe in Fenfang, you'll love her. Her search, as the dust jacket says, for beauty and belonging is recognisable the world over.
The city of Beijing is wonderfully captured. Most of us are unlikely to see it but we can certainly see it, hear it, almost touch it through Fenfang. It's busy, hot, dirty, full of ambition, poverty and peasants. The counterpoints of history and tradition swelter together in the city heat and the pettiness sits obstinately with the ambition in a colossus of a city obsessed with detail. The writing is witty and wry and Fenfang is self-deprecating and grandiose by turns. There's a great deal to like in 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, and while I didn't enjoy it as much as I had hoped, I fear the problem lies with me and not with the book. For that reason, I recommend it to you.
My thanks to the nice people at Chatto & Windus for sending the book.
If you're interested in fiction about China, Bookbag preferred Wang Shuo's satire, Please Don't Call Me Human.
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