Shenzheners, a newly translated collection of fictional vignettes by Chinese writer Xue Yiwei, begins with the story of a Canadian expat. She’s a self-described “country girl” who’s always felt out of place in crowded urban areas. That is, until a fateful encounter with a Chinese man who tells her for the first time about a “very special city, the youngest city in China.”
He’s talking about Shenzhen, of course. The metropolis is the organizing theme behind the nine short stories in the book, each of which follows one or two characters as they go about their daily lives. The chapters are named simply, from the opening ‘Country Girl’ to ‘The Dramatist,’ and even ‘The Mother’ and ‘The Father.’
In both title and structure, Shenzheners draws inspiration from James Joyce’s Dubliners, a collection of short stories based on a similar premise. But where Joyce populates his prose with memorable quirks of his Irish hometown, Shenzhen seems to be barely present in Xue Yiwei’s book. The actual name of the city is only mentioned once, and in passing at that.
Instead, lives unfold against the backdrop of an anonymous urban landscape. There’s turmoil and angst and sexual tension to be found here, a lot of it inside the characters’ heads. In one story, a neglected housewife becomes obsessed with a man in her neighborhood whom she watches from her apartment window. In her words:
“I fantasized that he would reach towards my corner of awkwardness from another planet. And I fantasized that I would hear his breath and my own as well, and our breaths would meet in a perfect fusion, like water and milk.”
Not all the drama is internalized, however. In the story ‘Two Sisters,’ a woman tells her younger sibling that she’s finally found a “reliable,” obedient husband, only to see her marriage disintegrate. In ‘The Prodigy,’ a man tells the story of the ‘devil’ that caused his life to fall apart at a young age.
Despite the angst, Shenzheners rarely comes across as over the top; it’s melancholy, not melodramatic. Most of the stories are told in the third person or from an outside observer’s perspective. That narrative distance, plus translator Darryl Sterk’s spare prose, makes for an overall understated style.
Shenzheners represents the first time Xue Yiwei’s work has appeared in English. Although the writer has lived in Montreal, Canada, for the last 14 years, he consistently writes in Chinese for a mainland audience. He’s been recognized for his work too: Shenzheners won a Most Influential Chinese Book award when it was first published in 2013.
Xue’s current life as an expatriate could explain why he chose to start his book with a foreigner going to China. In Shenzhen, the Canadian country girl is a stranger in a strange land. She finds herself disoriented and continuously disappointed in her search for intimacy. The thread of isolation that flavors her story runs throughout the entire book, leaving the reader with a faint taste of loneliness at the end.
Shenzheners is available on Amazon.
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