Jia Jia has been married for 4 years, in a relationship based on practical things like making a family rather than love. When her husband announces that they will go on a trip, Jia Jia goes to pack, only to walk into the bathroom to find her husband dead in the bath tub. He has left no sign of what happened, other than an strange drawing of a fish with a man’s face. What does it mean? Did he kill himself? The image haunts JiaJia and leads her to ask questions about her husband and his life, and also slowly to find answers to her questions about her own life too.
After the first page of this book, I knew immediately I was going to like it. An Yu studied at NYU, and this is her first book. She’s a Beijing native, born and raised, but she writes in English. This is her first novel, and The Guardian has compared her to Haruki Murikami, because of the gentle sadness of the book and it’s surreal content. An Yu mixes the every day of Jia Jia’s greiving and her life circumstances with a search for meaning, a fish-man and a dark living ocean. I really love the way there’s the every day, and then an ocean in her bedroom. I also loved An Yu’s beautiful way of describing things. She has a lovely, unpretentious turn of phrase that’s evocative and a little poetic. She describes something at one point as being like finding a peach tree in a desert. I have felt that way sometimes, I knew exactly how that felt.
I found the way Jia Jia feels about her relationship with her husband really interesting. She worries about him and tries to please him. She knows that he sees other women, and worries about being abandoned by him. But then, she is also slightly disgusted by him sometimes, his phyisicality. He seems exacting, demanding. And a bit of a mystery. She genuinely greives for him and their life, but she is also greiving for her own abandonment by her parents. I felt for her a lot.
I also was really interested in the concepts about women and their place in the world in Beijing. It felt different but familiar. Here, a woman is elegant, a symbol of family and an accessory for a man, her feelings are sublimated to this role. Jia Jia is sometimes described as childlike, at one point reading some paperwork as though reading for the first time. Her femininity is so much a part of who she is, in a way that is quite different from Western ideas, in a lot of ways. She is reserved, an audience, answering others, not initiating, not someone who speaks up or performs herself. And yet, she is a painter, an artist. Also, because her husband is dead, as a widow she is considered a curse and blamed for his death. She is unlucky. Her husband also, though he took care of her while alive and even spoiled her a little, has not provided well for her after death, as though now she is meaningless, she does not matter. It is very cruel that she’s left alone and has no friends, very little family, is estranged from her father and has no means of financial support.
I really liked Jia Jia’s story. The way she found herself again and the choices she makes. I love that there’s something dreamlike about this book. It’s so beautifully written as the everyday is interupted by the out of place. It felt so mysterious. What is the fish man? What is the water that invades her life? What happened to her husband? She just accepts the strange, and others around her do too. She doesn’t question her sanity, and no one else does either. It’s kind of haunting.
An Yu has written a beautiful book. I enjoyed it so much. I loved visiting a city I know little about, where people see things differently. Womanhood is something different there, people have to wear anti-pollution masks sometimes, different holidays are celebrated. But also, in this story, sometimes a world of water invades. There is magic here, and fish with human faces, there is loss, sadness, melancholy, mystery and loss of identity. But also healing, love, and Jia Jia’s favourite dish, braised pork.
Read It If: highly recommended. It’s unusual, fresh, beautifully written and heartfelt, but also strange and mysterious. I look forward to whatever An Yu writes next.
Thank you PGC Books for the review copy of this book. All opinions are my own honest thoughts.
Braised Pork by An Yu is out now.