Marrow by Yan Lianke

translated by Carlos Rojas

(Penguin China, 2016)

Publisher’s Blurb

In a small village deep in the Balou Mountains, Fourth Wife You despairs of what the future holds for her four mentally-impaired children. A cure for the family curse appears, but it will extract a price so primal and complete that no one can be expected to make it except, perhaps, for a mother. A chilling and relentless tale of family responsibility and a mother’s sacrifice, Marrow is Yan Lianke at his best.

Reading Chinese Network Reviews

Reviewed by Tamara McCombe, 13/9/17

The translator Carlos Rojas of the English edition chose not to literally translate the title of Yan Lianke’s novella, which would have been ‘Song of Balou Mountain’, instead he draws out the text’s eerie theme of the inner most core of the human body, bone marrow. This is not a text you ‘enjoy’ in the pleasant sense. It is subtly, detachedly and realistically gruesome. Very few characters are given individual names, instead the protagonist is referred to as ‘Fourth Wife You’ and her children, ‘First Daughter’ to ‘Fourth Idiot’, depending on when they were born into the family. Hence the reader cannot even attach themselves to the characters. The lack of human or geographical names is an example of Yan’s well-known and self-criticised self-censorship. Having worked as a government propaganda writer and had works banned in Mainland China, the author knows only too well that too much blatant negative comment in literary works on his homeland leaves him unpublished. Despite these two points it surprised me how gripped I was to turn on to the next page.

Yan Lianke’s novella Marrow lays out the tale of a widow, ‘Fourth Wife You’, in rural China giving her utmost to do the best by her four mentally handicapped children and ultimately continue the family line. Psychological dysfunction in people, so traditional Chinese culture says, manifests itself as a result of past family wrong doings. Hence, why individuals inflicted with such conditions can in Chinese society be cause for loss of face to a family and why Fourth Wife You’s husband, consumed by guilt, commits suicide. Alone, Fourth Wife You toils, literally shedding sweat and blood, in the fields to fill her children’s mouths and crosses many li to find each of her brood the best partner to marry given their financial and psychological limitations.

Yan is lauded internationally for his masterly ability to adopt different writing styles in each of his works. In Marrow, Yan brutally contrasts Romanticism in his picturesque descriptions of the idyllic rural landscape and uses the lyrical descriptions of the change in light to portray the passing of time with the Realism of hard physical labour and emotional anguish of rural dwellers.

The Beijing-based, Henan-born, author has said his home and heart are in his childhood province, not the city. Where city dwellers might look down upon the country folk in the story for their superstitious and simple ways, Yan’s portrayal of the unwaveringly determined Fourth Wife You shows his deepest respect for them. In an interview Yan is quoted saying “The peasants are like that. When disasters strike, they will suffer for a few days and then they will ‘accept their fates’, they will endure and they will try their best to face reality and daily life again. This is their instinct to live, and it is their spirit to live. This ability to live is something that urban dwellers and intellectuals cannot possibly have, and it is a worldview that their forebears left them over the many generations.”

At the same time, he is all too aware of the backwardness of the countryside and its abandonment
by the cities. The characters are portrayed as animalistic and savage. Frequently, Yan likens Fourth
Wife You’s children to animals, whether it be by comparing their bite marks in food to fang-like holes or endowing Fourth Idiot with zoophilic predilections. Animal  bones in traditional Chinese medicine are lauded for their powers to cure illness. Knowing this, in desperation to cure her children and settle her family’s past wrongs, Fourth Wife You ultimately realises medicine made with the bones from the most complex of animals, the human, is the answer. A sinister air hangs over the novella from page one and the outcome is somewhat predictable but it is the foreboding of the latter which compels the reader on.

Being a novella, the reader is fortunately not forced to read late into the night to discover the characters’ fates. The story is too unnerving to enjoy as such but it is certainly entertaining.

Reviewed by Tamara McCombe