The harshest critics of foreign writers in China are usually other foreign writers in China. They are more sensitive to China cliches. They dislike the explanations required to make writing accessible to a general audience overseas. They recoil at the hint of stereotype, even if it draws on something they observe as commonplace.
As such, novels and memoirs from China-based authors (especially young ones and those on small or independent publishers) can attract disdain from local critics. To my shame, it was perhaps this very fear that allowed a preview copy of Carly J. Hallman’s debut novel, Year of the Goose, to sink deep into the recesses of my inbox. Were the red and gold design not so appealing, I could make a hackneyed reflection on judging books by their covers.
But then Hallman entered That’s Beijing’s Halloween flash-fiction competition. Her submission, The Roast Duck Killer, was a clear-cut winner – a darkly comic tale of a murderer exhibiting victims like Peking Ducks. And so, with my preview PDF retrieved, I shall atone for my quick judgment. Because while Year of the Goose is not without its faults, it is a charming and, at times, laugh-out-loud read.
The novel opens with the travails of Kelly Hui, daughter of China’s richest man, Papa Hui, and heiress to his Bashful Goose Snack Company. China-watchers’ cliche-sensors will immediately tingle as she navigates the obese children’s fat camp in which the book’s opening section is set. The officials are of course corrupt, the buildings are of course unfinished, and the acne-ridden singleton who can’t grow a beard of course laments his mother’s pressure over marriage. Kelly herself is a spoiled American-educated princess who yearns for the respect and attention of her tycoon father, and her tedious ‘whatever’ attitude permeates the opening section.
But persist and the story becomes distinctly more imaginative. As the focus moves to other, less one-dimensional characters (all are somehow linked to Papa Hui’s snack empire), Hallman’s writing becomes more fluid and nuanced. The book’s second section is dedicated to the likable Wang Xilai, a balding hair-extension mogul implicated in a murder case. And from here onward, Hallman’s casual style (and the humor of petulant characters) sits more comfortably.
Perhaps some of the references are still too easy (a grand banquet serves birds nest soup and “silver platters of tiger meat cooked with the fur still attached”). But Hallman paints an increasingly and endearingly absurd vision of modern China. Quite where parody becomes satire is unclear. But given that the actual offspring of China’s richest man, Wang Sicong, gave his dog an Apple Watch (see page 41), these blurred boundaries exist beyond the realm of literature.
As the story grows more surreal, it becomes more compelling in turn. Some of the book’s finest flourishes come in its oddest moments: the diary of Papa Hui’s on-the-run goose, and an errant Buddhist monk reincarnated in the body of a turtle.
Hallman’s style is direct, youthful and, at times, reminiscent of crude teen lit (“aren’t you supposed to come back as something higher?” the turtle is asked. “Like something not used in, uh, boner soup?”). Too often she relies on strings of questions to convey characters’ thoughts, and her colloquialisms can feel at odds with the characters playing them out. People ‘plop’ down into seats too regularly; things happen ‘left, right and center’; and perhaps I’m being old-fashioned, but there is something a little jarring about seeing terms like ‘humble-brag’ and ‘craptastic’ in print.
Nonetheless, Year of the Goose is a credible debut. Even if world-weary China heads don’t get it, there will be plenty who do.
Year of the Goose is available on Amazon.