Saturday, April 16, 2011

Book Review: Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai

Title: Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai
Author: Ruiyan Xu
Genre: Fiction
Edition: Kindle
Published: 2009
Opening Lines: "Later, she would remember the crack in the building: a line splitting the cement, a body of veins crawling everywhere. It happened in slow motion. On a balcony two blocks away she watched the crumple of the Swan Hotel. Aortas feeding into arteries, capillaries branching off, slender, disappearing into the fa├žade of the building. Carrying blood away from the heart. The hollow, sickening boom of it sucking all air out of her lungs."

"A massive explosion in a Shanghai hotel leaves 32-year-old businessman Li Jing unable to utter a single word in Chinese. Instead, he is only able to speak in halting English, which he learned as a child and which he last spoke at the age of 10. His family pays to bring in American neurologist Rosalyn Neal. Li Jing’s beautiful wife, Meiling, is left to try to run his financial consulting firm and to allay the anxiety of their young son. Because Li Jing and Rosalyn Neal, who has recently divorced, are both isolated by their inability to communicate in Chinese, they soon form a bond born of mutual fear and vulnerability. And Meiling, who always took her husband’s adoration for granted, is dealt another blow by the easy camaraderie of doctor and patient, which stands in such stark contrast to the married couple’s strained attempts to connect. Set in a dense, dizzyingly urban Shanghai, Xu’s elegant first novel affectingly addresses the way identity and language intertwine and the emotional anguish of estrangement." ~Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist

Thoughts: I don't read a lot of straight fiction, but I've found some very good ones over the years. This is one of them. It would be of interest to people interested in linguistics, the brain, human nature, Shanghai, or many other things, because all of these are important in the book.

We depend a lot on language to connect us to the people around us. Imagine losing the language you have spoken most of your life and being unable to talk to your family, your friends, your coworkers, your employees. Imagine the frustration of being cut from everyone you know by the barrier of language after never having that isolation before? This is Li Jing.

Imagine losing the ability to speak to your husband, the frustration of not being able to talk. The pain of him not being able to say your name correctly. Imagine having to take over duties he's always done with no experience in them yourself. You have to be strong for him, but is that what he needs? This is Zhou Meiling, Li Jing's wife.

Imagine being in China for the first time. You've always lived in the United States Midwest and have never been out of the country or to a city as big as Shanghai. Imagine not knowing the culture, not knowing the language, having no way to connect to the people around you. Imagine the isolation you would feel, trying to find your way in this strange place where nothing is familiar. This is Dr. Rosalyn Neal, the doctor the family brings over to work with Li Jing.

What would you do in any of these people's places? How would you adapt? How would you respond? How would you feel?

This book is more about experiencing the unknown and isolation and how people react than about the themes or about the city. The author does make you feel and see the city through the eyes of each of the characters, but she also makes you feel what they feel. She takes you there, not just to the setting, but to the mind, to the isolation, to the emotions.

Ruiyan Xu is an amazing author and I would read anything else she writes, regardless of the subject or genre.


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