The West's fascination with the Far East continues: from Jung Chang's Wild Swans (1992) to Wei Hui's Shanghai Baby (2001), readers are hungry for tales of a repressed, remote and alien China. Lili and The Distant Land of My Father are high points in this vogue, compelling in their foreignness and salient in their universal appeal. The lives of both authors are prominent in their work: Bo Caldwell draws on her relationship with her uncle; Annie Wang's is "a manifestation of [her] youthful rebellion".
Wang grew up in Beijing, and now lives in America. Although this is her first novel written in English - at 28 she is already a prolific writer in Chinese - her command is sure. After Lili's rape in the Monkey village where her parents, "stinky number nine" intellectuals, had been sent for Maoist re-education, she runs away to Beijing. There she becomes a "female hooligan", paying for her protection with sex. The abasements and corruption of the "glorious Motherland" buffet Lili until her haunting touch on the erhu ignites a relationship with Roy, an American journalist.
Close under the skin of Wang's narrative lies adroit political analysis. Between Lili's scalded cynicism and Roy's naive idealism, China is laid bare: the misogyny, the suppression, the bureaucracy, the fear. Roy's apple-a-day American-Dream approach is dangerous in Lili's world - as they find out when the incredible rural poverty prompts him to rescue a tiny girl. His interference has tragic results; and yet it is Roy's optimism, combined with the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, that rouses in Lili a new feeling for her country - a feeling tied up with unity, the "magic of something greater than oneself".
Bo Caldwell's first novel, The Distant Land of My Father, movingly explores the bond between parent and child - its resilience and its fragility. It is the story of Anna Schoene. She is six in 1937 when the book opens, and Caldwell evokes the foibles and certainty of a child's mind with flawless precision, provoking forgotten memories of one's own.
Anna's father, Joseph, is a millionaire. Her life is idyllic. But the days of Scotch and silks and polo are shattered when the Japanese invade, and Anna's beautiful mother, Eve, takes her away to the clean, safe world of Pasadena. Joseph, however, remains. He is hooked on the possibilities - his energy and bent are seamlessly suited to the black market - and on the richly diverse and exotic city. His affair with Shanghai breaks his marriage, lands him twice in prison, and removes him from the life of his confused and angry daughter. It is only through the bequest of his diaries that Anna can at last understand him.
Caldwell brings China alive, conjuring a people through the sounds and meaning of Chinese idiom, the stink of the Bund, and the taste of sugared lotus seeds and fried noodles with shrimp. The wonder of this book is in the glorious detail, as much as the engaging and emotive development.
Original article published in The Daily Telegraph, in February, 2002