Good Afternoon readers!
I hope you’re all well and safe and taking care of yourselves. We had quite a lovely weekend here with some absolutely gorgeous weather and there was lots of street parties (socially distant ones of course) to celebrate VE Day! I marked the occasion with a Betty’s scone, a pot of their strawberry jam and a pot of house blend tea in the back garden whilst I finished my current read and soaked up the sunlight. If I closed my eyes I could have been on holiday!
Today isn’t such a lovely day so today will definitely be a yoga and book day! Today I’d like to share with you one of my latest reads I’ve taken from my TBR pile, one that hasn’t had that much attention since it was released and that has had mixed reviews. These books I think however, are so much more interesting to read than those that everybody loved as it’s entirely down to your interpretation.
BRAISED PORK, BY AN YU
So firstly, how absolutely beautiful is that cover and sprayed pages! I’m a sucker for a sprayed page but a patterned one? Next level! Also I’m super fortunate to have a limited first edition copy, signed by the Author. It’s honestly one of the most striking books on my shelf. But now, onto the review.
*Contains mild spoilers*
“One morning, in autumn, just after breakfast, Jia Jia finds her husband dead in the bathtub of their Beijing apartment. Next to him is a piece of folded paper, a sketch of a strange creature from his dream.
He has left no other sign.
Young, alone and with many unanswered questions, Jia Jia sets out on a journey. It takes her deep into her past, where for the very first time, she begins to have a sense of her future.”
I half expected this story to be a murder mystery, a conspiracy thriller kind of novel with some secret spies, some symbolism of an underground network and some dark backstory. I was wrong, but what I found instead was a beautiful and sobering walk in the shoes of a character swept with loneliness, isolation and grief.
It’s a fairly short story, at only 226 pages but I think the length is just right. We begin the story with the fairly rich Jia Jia and Chen Hang, a married couple in their early thirties who live in Beijing, but in a loveless marriage at that. They are now bonded only by their longing for a family of their own, their respect for one another has long fizzled away. Chen Hang is controlling and belittling to his wife, telling artist Jia Jia to give up her career because her art ‘looked bad’ and likening her to a struggling artist, which he feels reflects poorly on him. Jia Jia’s life is lonely, without much purpose and driven entirely by her husband and societal expectation.
Chen Hang tells Jia Jia to pack immediately for a trip, before he goes straight away for a bath and drowns himself in the water. All that lies beside him as a form of suicide note is a sketch of some kind of Merman. Instead of feeling sadness, Jia Jia feels betrayed by what she feels is a ‘selfish act’. Jia Jia is now considered by Chen Hang’s family as ‘cursed’ and so she is immediately rejected from their family and must now fend for herself with the very little money he has left behind to her.
The story is of self discovery, self-expression and of the grief process; a woman released from the suppressive hold her husband had over her but also trying to find answers for his death. Jia Jia immediately begins to rebel her previously conservative and supressive life as a married woman, overplaying the part of a horrendous flirt, drinking almost daily, sleeping with another man trying desperately to re-shape her life and find her feet.
As the story develops, Jia Jia begins having lucid dreams and blacking out for moments at a time, seeing and feeling herself immersed in water, trying to follow a fish. The fish is the guiding light. It made me wonder – is this psychosis or is it Jia Jia’s emotion? Is the fish symbolism for Jia Jia, swimming around a large ocean with no sense of direction now her world has turned upside down? Through meditation and piecing parts together, Jia Jia follows the last trip of her husband to Tibet to find out what it all means.
Beijing, Tibet, Buddhism and Chinese culture play a large part within the novel, as you may expect. I found this truly mesmirising as a British woman with an interest in Buddhism. The book is of course open to interpretation but in my opinion the ‘world of water’ as Jia Jia refers to it as – is meditation. She zones out from the world around her and internalises her feelings of pain and hope. It is in Tibet that she discovers others who also know of this ‘world of water’ and to which her late husband’s drawing relates. Here she begins her path to peace.
The book obviously has some heavy themes; suicide, religion, broken relationships, unhappy marriages, female suppression and grief. However I found it truly compelling. I fully appreciated peering through the window into Chinese culture and I loved the mythical story of the world of water and the mystery that surrounded it.
The culture of the rich really shines through the pages; unhappy marriages, closed off emotions, women to behave like trophy wives and men being the main (and only) breadwinners. An Yu also plays with subtle comedy very well which really lifted the tale. One point I found amusing is Jia Jia going out for ‘fresh air’ and having to take her anti-pollution mask with her to do so, which I found ironic. She also names people like a rude shop assistant ‘Mole Lady’ due to a large mole on her face.
The characters of Jia Jia’s Aunt and Grandma were also playful and lighthearted and added a lovely balance to the of characters in the mix and lightened the tale somewhat. Grandma is a very opinionated yet practical woman, and her Aunt is a wild dreamer, lavish and an entrepreneur, like a Yin and Yang to one another, they complemented each other’s character and influence on Jia Jia perfectly.
Jia Jia’s character herself isn’t that likeable because of her brick wall nature – closed off, rude, selfish, entitled, lonely, bitter with resentment and obsessed with public appearance. For example, Jia Jia is grieving but has been taught not to cry.. her way is to imagine crying so as not to actually shed a tear herself. Jia Jia as a result is very closed off from other people and from her own emotions. Having myself known people in the past with quite striking similarities to the married life and personality of Jia Jia, I felt that An Yu wrote her character very well. However by the end of the tale, she develops a deeper understanding and connection to others through her journey which makes her much more relatable and helps to fix some of the major problems in her life.
CAN’T PUT IT DOWN RATING: 4.5/5
I honestly think that this was a beautiful piece of literature and it is very well balanced; I don’t think it has had the praise it deserves for the quiet natured skilful craft of the writing and the careful development of Jia Jia on her path of self discovery and healing. I think for many this book might be a little ‘out there’, but if you have a mind that is creative, open and you are interested in exploring the nature of other cultures that may be outside of your own, I would absolutely read this.
It’s a novel for anyone with an interest in myth, folklore and in the complicated emotions of other human beings. I really came away grateful for the insight into Chinese culture and thoroughly enjoyed the myth and mystery. It got under my skin and I can’t help thinking about others that may be feeling the same emotions of loneliness and emptiness.
I think some could criticise that the story or character of Jia Jia is flat, but it really does depend on whether you appreciate what the story is trying to convey, and if you understand Jia Jia’s character.
My final thoughts:
“A truly beautiful book, inside and out.”
Where to Buy:
WASHED DOWN WITH:
A selection of fruit teas and a piece of homemade brownie! My favourite one however has to be the Vanilla Orange and Coconut from English Tea Shop in a Christmas Selection box I’m still sipping my way through! An organic caffeine free blend, fruity and sweet and a little tropical. Highly recommend.
QOTD: What book did you enjoy that you think hasn’t had the hype it deserved? Tell me in the comments!