I’ve just finished reading two new books back to back, and I can only say that both reading experiences were completely satisfying, both were modern Asian novels, both were short, both were written by women, both were just published, and these two books couldn’t possibly be less alike.
Natsuo Kirino’s Real World follows four teenage girls in the outskirts of Tokyo who are locked in a safe, playful friendship until a boy who has killed his mother steals one of the girl’s cell phones and begins calling them. It’s feminist crime noir, so realistic and low-key you believe it could have happened, written in a breathless, headlong style so effortless the book’s two hundred pages rush past in a blur of suspense, with genuine caring on the reader’s part for four very realistic girls. It’s easy to shed tears over happy endings or any kind of sentimental overload, I do it all the time, but it’s been a long time since I actually cried from pure grief and sadness. The novel delivers a double punch ending that leaves you wet-eyed and gasping.
Conversely, there are no punches anywhere in Xiaolu Guo’s subtle, delicate Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth. The short novel is a slight, almost plotless sequence of sketches of modern Beijing through the eyes of Fenfang Wang, a seventeen-year-old who runs away from her provincial mountain home in Ginger Hill Village and learns how to live in Beijing as a film extra. With frequent invocations to the Heavenly Bastard in the Sky, Fenfang wrestles for ten years with a series of boyfriends, writes her own screenplay about a simple, ordinary man, and struggles against nosy neighbors who label any girl who veers even slightly from the norm as a prostitute. Fenfang weighs the joys and sorrows of life in this touching little mosaic of sketches, and as she lands a string of non-speaking walk-on roles, she grows increasingly independent and endearing, all the while eating, since she’s always ravenously hungry. The characters are quick sketches, their personalities only hinted at, and yet the reader still cares in this sequence of episodes drawn with swift, light strokes.
What do these two very different novels have in common? In both of them, the city where they happen in almost a character, dominating the novel in mood, whether it’s Tokyo or Beijing. In both novels, women defy the restrictions of their gender and push adventurously into the competitive, male-dominated world of higher stakes. And both novels are seen through the eyes of the next generation, young women shaking off the restrictive roles of the past and trying to make their own decisions in the complex, contradictory modern world.