Wild Fruit by Sheng Keyi

translated by Shelly Bryant

Penguin Viking, 2019

Publisher’s Blurb

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.

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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