Love is All Sustaining

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 Under Fishbone Clouds by Sam MeekingsThe Jade Emperor wants the Kitchen God to study humans and what keeps them alive even when war and political unrest cause great unhappiness. He picks a newly married couple, Bian Yuying and her husband, Hou Jinyi. Their marriage takes place in the 1940s, just before China became a Communist country, and really only happened because Hou Jinyi was poor and Yuying’s family thought it would help with their political status once Communism comes in. The couple are forced to move to the countryside to earn a living, and lose two babies along the way. Eventually finding their way back to the city, they start up new lives and have more children, but then the Cultural Revolution rears its ugly head, tearing their lives apart once more. How do they find the strength to continue living when being beaten and criticised for their bourgeois past and forced to work in different parts of the country?

Author Sam Meekings has only lived in China for four years and as such, I was doubtful about his abilities to write about China in an authentic way. It was therefore with some trepidation that I began this book. I needn’t have worried. I was instantly transported to China, where I lived for many years. The descriptions are rich and well-written and felt completely authentic. Meekings has most certainly done his research; he weaves traditional tales in with descriptions of modern China and it works together brilliantly. For anyone who knows very little about China and wants to learn more, this book is a really good start.

At the beginning of the book, I didn’t like the whole Kitchen God and Jade Emperor storyline. Although it only takes up a very small part of the book – one or two pages preceding each chapter – I didn’t feel that it was necessary. And to a certain extent, it isn’t. The Bian Yuying and Hou Jinyi story is strong enough to not need embellishments, and it seems as though the author just wants to make the book different from the many others looking at life during this period of Chinese history. As I progressed through the book, however, I changed my mind. As a literary device, it is useful, because it enables the reader to take a step back with the Kitchen God and view the couple’s life in the context of history, before returning to the much more personal angle of their family life.

“Apart from some initial reservations, the story is brilliantly told and the standard of writing is superb.”

We don’t completely get under the skins of the two main characters, perhaps because they are merely small fish in the huge pond of Chinese history. Nevertheless, there is enough information to intrigue and keep the reader interested. Bian Yuying comes from a wealthy family and has never really had to struggle. On the other hand, Hou Jinyi comes from poor peasant stock, and only manages to marry Yuying because her father wants someone to take on her family name, rather than losing his daughter to another family. Despite their differences in upbringing, they do come to love one another, and it is lovely to read the growth in their relationship over time – Meekings has done a great job of balancing romance with realism here. This is no traditional love story, but it is all the more moving because of that fact.

I really liked the way the story was told. There are thirteen chapters; each chapter represents the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac and the corresponding year (so 1946, for example, is the year of the dog). The thirteenth chapter represents the cat, which isn’t a sign of the zodiac, but according to tradition, the cat almost became immortalised in this way, but lost out at the last minute. The story takes place across fifty-eight years, the earliest being 1942; the last being 2000. This is a great way to encourage the reader to continue, because, having skipped a few years in between chapters, we are instantly eager to find out where Yuying and Jingyi are and how they are progressing – even though much of the time, we know the news is unlikely to be good.

The years that cover the Cultural Revolution made for uncomfortable reading; anyone that knows anything about the period will expect this, but it is still deeply unpleasant. Friends and even family turn on each other; no-one can be themselves and those considered bourgeois in any way are beaten and bullied. As a way of expressing just how frightening those years were though, Meekings’ descriptions are spot on. I particularly liked the fact that Yuying and Jinyi’s son suffered from depression and/or a form of social phobia, and really struggled with his inability to socialise when Communism demanded it – I have often wondered how individuals with such problems survived the Cultural Revolution, and this is a great insight, albeit fictional and downright depressing.

I really enjoyed reading Under Fishbone Clouds (if enjoyed is the right word for a story that is heart-rending at times). This is Sam Meekings’ debut novel, but I think it deserves to do very well and hope that he continues to write about China – he really seems to have a gift for it. Apart from some initial reservations, the story is brilliantly told and the standard of writing is superb. It was a real pleasure to read a book that hadn’t obviously been translated from the Chinese, with all the problems of flow that that brings, and yet comes across as being completely authentic. The contrast between traditional and modern China is also well done, giving a great insight into a period of enormous change. Highly recommended.

Under Fishbone Clouds by Sam Meekings

Published by Polygon, it has 416 pages.

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Under Fishbone Clouds
by Sam Meekings

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Written by sunmeilan
sunmeilan

My background is varied. I studied Chinese at Durham University in the UK, Renmin University in Beijing and Nanjing University. I then lived in China for many years, before returning to the UK to study criminology at the London School of Economics, from where I have a Masters. I have published articles on drug treatment and the criminal justice system. Although I have now left this field, I do enjoy crime fiction and reviewing books from this genre. I also have a strong interest in Chinese modern fiction.

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