Ravenous Colour: 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth – Xiaolu Guo

We will begin at the beginning of the end.  This was Xiaolu Guo’s first novel to be published in her native Chinese, reviewing it years later for translation into English she confessed several problems in the acknowledgements:

Paperback: 208 pages Published: 1st January 2009, Vintage.

“The first was the language. The translation needed to capture the speech of a young Chinese girl who lives a chaotic life and speaks in slangy, raw Chinese. The second obstacle was that I was no longer completely happy with the original Chinese text.

Ten years on, I found I didn’t agree with the young woman who had written it. Her vision of the world had changed, along with Beijing and the whole of China. I wanted to re-work each sentence of my Chinese book, and fight with its author who knew so little about the world.” 

It is a uniquely honest portrait of the struggles of developing as a writer, and the complex world of translation that can also precede it if you are a non-English speaker. Guo’s first attempt at the story of Fenfang’s chaotic young life in China’s largest city may have left the author reeling in her self-confessed naiveté, but thankfully her re-written English translation is refreshing, bright and blunt in its brilliance.

Guo’s heroine Fenfang is disillusioned with the world, desperate to escape her stagnant rural life she flees to the mad jungle of Beijing at seventeen years old. Over 20 ‘Fragments’ of Fenfang’s life Xiaolu Guo paints the perilous and confusing journey of adulthood and a bright-young-thing desire. I enjoyed it immensely, a fantastically easy read that is vibrant in its language and powerful in its imagery of a poor Chinese life at the millennium. Most significantly a poor female life. The frustrating and restricted expectations placed on Fenfang is slid subtly into the fragments by Guo, the lonely separation resulting from her heroine’s misfortune and unsatisfying jobs.

Fenfang is a brilliant creation, a bold honest voice in a noisy world. Xaiolu Guo is a writer I’ve wanted to dip into for a while now, and I look forward to reading the more popular works, last years I Am China and The Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. The book itself also clearly demonstrates Xiaolu Guo’s sharp examination on the Chinese life, its citizens and how it is perceived and treats outsiders. “China is better at being American than America”

Reflecting on the book I realised Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (Vintage Paperback, 2015) by Haruki Murakami would provide an excellent companion piece; a similarly lost young individual portraying their ravenous desires for emotional fulfillment in the messy world, although male and Japanese. Aside from the vast cultural and gender juxtapositions Murakami’s novel paints a significantly more economically comfortable scenario compared to Fenfang’s depressing concrete life of cockroaches, hunger and instant noodles. I am glad I do not act like Fenfang, and yet desperately wish I could be her.

Fenfang, you must look after yourself.

Desert Island Reads – Books are my Bag!

 It’s Books Are My Bag! They’ve asked for Desert Island Reads. Here are mine:

  1. The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch

    Because it’s bloody brilliant. Funny, witty, thrilling, colourful characters, twists, masks, money, thieving and skulduggery genius. I’ve re-read it so many times and each one was just as entertaining.

  2. The Gracekeepers – Kirsty Logan

    If I’m trapped on an island what better fantasy could I look for than a drowned world with similarly trapped characters. One of the best books I’ve read all year, beautifully written with clever world-building and intricate emotional characters. Love it, will need it on an island.

  3. Lord of the Flies – William Golding

    This would be my ‘what not to do’ guide. A haunting tale, terrifyingly drawn, brutally honest depiction of humanity and alluring in its study on the psyche of boys, violence, growing up and adulthood. A fairy tale to make the Grimm’s blush.

  4. Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien

    It’s three books, I cheat! The influential and important trilogy always deserves a re-read, and I’ll take my battered ancient paperbacks with me on the island too. I will need middle-earth to survive.

  5. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke

    A magical 19th century English epic. The world Clarke builds is engrossing and perilous in its detail, I could become a scholar of English Magic by the time I’m done reading this, and entertained along the way. Plus I would have plenty of time to finish the thing (it’s finger achingly long).

  6. The Crimson Petal and the White – Michel Faber

    Another 19th century English epic. A whole other world from Faber though, easily one of my favourite books ever, bravura, bold, brutal and beautiful. You could say I quite liked it.

  7. A Place of Greater Safety – Hilary Mantel

    I haven’t read this yet. It’s a novel of revolutionary France, written by Mantel, how can it be bad? It’s staggeringly long though, so a perfect time to draw myself in and learn La Marseillaise.

  8. Saga – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

    Because it’s incredible, a sci-fi epic of parenting and sex. It’s better than Star Wars. Easily. The art is gorgeous, character’s big and brilliant. I’d need it and could re-read it over and over.

Books! Bags! They’re cool.

Wytches and Witches

Paperback: 144 pages Published: 24th June 2015, Image Comics

Wytches, Volume One

Scott Snyder (Writer), Jock (Artist), Matt Hollingsworth (Colours), Clem Robins (Letters)

A personal and unique horror comic from the current Batman writer Scott Snyder, with incredible mind altering, horrific and beautiful art from Jock they have produced a very creepy comic well worth the time to pick up. The titular Wytches are quite frankly terrifying creations, they are have little to no relation with any form or incarnation of a Witch you may come across; pointy hats, magic brewing or even spells are entirely absent from this tribe of haunting creatures living in the trees, deformed and twisted faces of distorted muscles and dripping animalistic blurry behaviour are spectral in their fear.

Snyder provides his usual solid plotting, good dialogue and inflections of the personal that so often inhabits his work on Batman, yet Wytches is quite clearly the closest thing he has done to exploring his own emotions and expressions on parenting and the responsibility of growing up and looking after your child. There is certainly potential here for examining the theme of parenthood and children on modern comic production, between this and Saga by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples you would have a solid beginning for analysis.

But I feel it’s the art by Jock that shines in this, it is an artistic display of duality, the covers are alluring and haunting, beautiful and terrifying. The humans have individual nuances and character flairs, painted in a creepy town in a rural setting by a dark dark wood. The pages often drip with colour, specks of paint flicking across the pages of a character’s traumatic discovery or ending. Plus this first volume has a quite rightly celebratory quote from Stephen King himself, which should prove worthy enough to pick it up.

Paperback: 224 pages Published: 14th March 2013, Hammer

The Daylight Gate

Jeanette Winterson

Another Winterson, another batch of witches, this time covering the Pendle Witch Trials in Lancashire, England in 1612. A fictionalised retelling of a sadly true historical event, Winterson’s bold and brash tale is a harsh portrayal of the blind male hysteria and targeted female outcasts of the witch trials, yet the dark power of the devil is not entirely absent from their dealings. An entertaining read, brief and striking with the themes and actions covered by Winterson, it’s a certainly very different perspective on a witch trial, and the portrayal of perhaps more traditional witches in a poverty stricken landscape of religious manoeuvring. It is clearly not Winterson’s best work, Shakespeare makes a cameo at one point watching a performance of The Tempest, though despite my fears it fortunately does not turn into a 17th century England version of Forest Gump. What is successful is the memorably brutal portrayal of the witches and the sexual power and relationships between the characters, something Winterson is clearly adapt at producing.

Both of these are a far cry from Mildred Hubble and Ethel Hallow however.

The Gap of Time – Jeanette Winterson

Hardback: 320 pages Published: 1st October 2015, Hogarth.

Shakespeare is adaptation. The works we are left with penned by his hand are such an amalgam of differing versions, edited constructions and second-hand dictation it provides a tricky yet interesting argument that the modern versions of the plays we collect in Oxford, Cambridge or Norton Shakespeare’s aren’t the original exact texts that our greatest playwright/writer constructed himself. Shakespeare’s timeless study on the darkness, ridiculousness, love and tragedy that can inhabit our lives there have been fascinating and varied interpretations of the texts across the hundreds of years of performance. A popular and simple trait of late twentieth and twenty-first century performances has seen adaptations of setting to an alternative culture and time period. Naturally there are varying levels of success with this experiment, from ancient Japan and WWII to contemporary technology. Prince Hamlet would love twitter – #RIPOphelia 😦

To celebrate Shakespeare’s anniversary Hogarth have commissioned their top authors to adapt a chosen play to their own narrative story; the first of which is Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, a retelling of ‘The Winter’s Tale’. The most popular reaction to this statement I’ve witnessed is to declare no knowledge of that particular play. It is certainly one of the more obscure, lesser taught and performed pieces. This brings an interesting immediate split to the perspective readers of Winterson’s book, those who know the play and have studied it before (though a summary of the original is provided at the beginning of the book which is a useful addition) and those who approach it blind. I am on the former side, having read and studied the play before. It is certainly one of the most psychologically dark, magical and heightened of Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

The most significant aspect of the play, and the most interesting to my eyes in terms of Winterson’s approach to the piece, is the treatment and portrayal of Leontes. He is a horrifying and disgusting character, certainly one of Shakespeare’s most despicable, yet the fairy tale conclusion to the play – providing Leontes with a debatably deserved/undeserving penitence and forgiveness – can perhaps sit uncomfortably to a modern audience. It certainly does with my own reading of the play, the shadow of the treatment of his wife and son looming large across the resulting lines of the story. Winterson takes a decidedly ambiguous and clever stance with her interpretation. Leo may not be forgiven, but he can find himself healed and saved from damaging others with his rapacious desires.

Winterson also tackles head on the issue surrounding these adaptations, turning a written piece of drama for performance into a prose narrative is an aspect that will be a fascinating element to see from the different authors, and how they interpret this problem. Winterson’s book transcends itself as a novel, layered with the meta-textual; ‘The Winter’s Tale’ itself is directly quoted by a character during this parallel story, all seemingly unaware of the relation, and Jeanette Winterson herself and her works as an author (a printed extract of MiMi’s Wikipedia page states the character had performed in a stage adaptation of a Winterson story). Winterson builds to a personal and meta-textual understanding of the existence of the play’s messages and its deeply flawed characters, culminating in a performance itself.

Winterson is clearly interested in constructed worlds and realities that humans escape into, the songs and dreamlike singing of Hermione (MiMi), the titular video game ‘The Gap of Time’ created by Xeno and the fictional history of Perdita’s heritage by Shep. It is this element that most resonates with the fate of Leontes, should he be forgiven, is he deserving of it? Shakespeare provides us with that ending, and many have interpreted it in a fascinating way – one particular performance emphasised this fantastical ending as Leontes’ mental breakdown, darkness consuming the other actors as they leave him on stage alone and ranting about his happiness. His dead and forgotten young son walking out to his father with a candle as they are encircled in a single light, the ghost blows the flame out and the stage fades to black.

Winterson’s novel is a brilliantly written, very readable, often funny and undoubtedly a Jeanette Winterson study on human grief, jealousy, sexuality and forgiveness. It is a fascinating start to the Hogarth series, and one I will be determined to follow, with Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is my Name and Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler yet to come.