translated by Shelly Bryant
Penguin Viking, 2019
At first glance, the Li family looks like any other: one grumpy grandfather, two overworked parents, four siblings, and one small house for them all to live in. Still, with a journalist in the mix, its members can hardly hide their countless misfortunes. Xiaohan, the youngest daughter, shares her family’s unconventional life and exposes the depth of what it means to live in contemporary China today. Through sketches dedicated to each person in the Li clan, she shows how those close to her are forced to find new ways to survive, like wild fruit falling from a tree.
Reading Chinese Network Reviews
Reviewed by Vicki Leigh, 27/5/19
Consumers today demand authentic realism, don’t they? They see through the Instagram filters and the Disney-esque ‘happy ever afters’ they were fed as children. They want real. They want grit. They want the truth behind someone’s story. In Sheng Keyi’s Wild Fruit, set in modern-day Mainland China against the backdrop of the powerhouse cities of Beijing and Guangzhou as they grapple with the influx of subaltern country folk and their wretched lives, the author delivers a hefty dose of reality for those constitutionally strong enough to digest it.
In Yiyang – Sheng Keyi’s own home city in Hunan province – we learn from the opening that narrator Li Xiaohan’s life was never destined for much, as shown by the portrayal of photos of beautiful ancestral relatives, gathering fly faeces and mould, almost as if in humiliation at the present situation that this family’s next generation finds themselves in. From there, it’s rape, suicide, violence, and murder in an unflinchingly tragic narrative that is almost Greek in nature.
I found this novel markedly less ‘punchy’ than Sheng’s previous novel Northern Girls, where protagonist Xiaohong’s sheer fortitude gets her hopping from one life situation to the next with a hopeful shred of optimism in the very least. Here, in between sister Li Chuntian praying for her narcissistic, miserly father’s death, and ignored pleas for forgiveness from their father to his own father just before death of the latter separates them, despite references to the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez, there is very little magic in life to be found for Xiaohan and her family. Indeed, her family have no dignity even in death: they are so poor as to be unable to afford a coffin the correct size for a tall uncle, with his head ‘drooping’ out of the crack in it as it is ‘shoddy and baggy’.
Barely-veiled references to the Chinese authorities make their appearances by way of invasive parasites, such as this from a grotesque depiction of Xiaohan’s elder brother Shunqiu’s experience whilst in prison for his role in a fight: ‘[a cloud of] mosquitoes that form into an egg-shaped worm… [leaving a mans’ entire body covered in blood] and [the victim’s] face swollen to the size of his arse’. Shunqiu further is subject to being a host to ‘blood-sucking worms’ that destroy his healthy cells, leaving him extremely prone to chronic weakness. If prison doesn’t break his spirit, the parasite could help him on his way.
As expected of many contemporary novels coming out of China these days, the theme of sex also has several cameo roles. Xiaohan’s sharp niece Yihua’s innocent sexuality becomes a bargaining chip with the authorities – and it does not end well for her. Men are unable to control their urges after a couple of anaemic ‘pumps’, and a Westerner even gets a look in… but the act is silent, almost like a ‘disease’ they must bear. Women must remain child-bearing sexual playthings, and this is scornfully noted by Sheng Keyi.
Shelly Bryant’s translation nimbly illustrates the hardships of all players, though amidst all the anguish, it is easy to forget about Xiaohan’s own plotline revolving around her journalism and futile feelings for her boss until she actively brings it back around to herself. For readers unfamiliar with Chinese culture and names, it is very useful to have the Li family tree to hand before the novel starts. The decision to separate Shui Qin’s name into two separate syllables when she is married to Shunqiu was also a valuable one, as I can imagine there could be potential for some confusion there if one is not familiar with the sounds of Chinese.
All in all, the novel is far from feel-good, but a terse account of one family that endures more tragedy than the average household. Pixar this ain’t, but Sheng Keyi’s strong prose does shine through all the heartbreak, and she is still a literary force among her modern Chinese literature peers.
Reviewed by Vicki Leigh
Reviewed by Barry Howard, 24/3/19
Through the lives of an ordinary family we are shown the dark places of modern China. As with her previously translated novel, Northern Girls, Sheng Keyi is surely operating near the boundaries of what the Chinese government will allow to be published. Her political allegory, Death Fugue, clearly went beyond those limits (banned in mainland China). Wild Fruit looks like a return to the edges of censorship, where social criticism can be allowed as long as no finger is directly pointed at the authorities.
Wild Fruit starts with a series of terrible events: death in childbirth, rape, suicide, attempted infanticide, and unjust imprisonment. The rapid movement from one tragedy to the next with minimal context or character development makes for a stuttering start. Perhaps this is intentional. The protagonist (Li Xiaohan) is a journalist and it’s as if she is giving us a bad day of news. First the headlines, then the detail. Soon we do get the depth and much more besides.
Medical quackery, foot-binding, forced abortions and sterilisations; domestic violence, police brutality, and gulags. Confucian hierarchy, patriarchy and ancestor worship. Non-existent rule of law, disputes settled by violence; a mafia society directed by the whim of those in power. Flattery helps, but it’s favours and bribes that get things done. Cold pragmatism means friendships are only worthwhile if they bring financial benefits. That gained from struggle and toil is easily lost through bad luck, accidents, mistakes, or illness.
Even the positives have a flip side. Agricultural developments brought food to the masses, but now it’s covered in pesticides or full of growth hormones. Social mobility saw the children of peasant farmers go to university, but now the competition for exam success sees parents sacrificing their well-being and children unable to cope with the pressure.
Through Li Xiaohan, I think the author wants to highlight how China’s sluggish social development is in stark contrast to the great strides of its economic miracle. The newspaper that Li Xiaohan works for appears modelled on Guangzhou’s Southern Weekly (南方周末). This paper became famous in the 1990s and 2000s for its investigative journalism before eventually being ‘shut-up’ in 2013. I wonder if Sheng Keyi is using this novel to keep alive the reporting on corruption, crony capitalism, and abuse of worker rights. As such it’s relevant across the world, and not just to China.
For all its worth, this novel does suffer from a scattergun approach to exposing society’s ills. For such a multiplicity of misfortune to hit one family renders them almost as caricatures. As such, more becomes less.
What starts off as a family saga ends up more a journalistic notebook. However, it is perceptive and sympathetic. It is also a novel with strong, independent women who take the hard knocks and carry on. There is humour and as it’s a story set in China, it cannot exist without references to food! Overall, a bold and spirited piece of writing that explores large themes and makes small observations that have profound meanings.
Reviewed by Barry Howard