A portrait of the lives of lower-class women in Shanghai in the early years of the People's Republic of China. Wang Anyi, one of contemporary China's most acclaimed authors, explores the daily lives of migrants from rural areas and other people on the margins of urban life.
There is a Joycean celebration of memory in Wang’s writing, a belief in its ability to transcribe the sensual markers of a particular time and place. One imagines her as a mental flâneuse, exploring Shanghai’s psychogeographical terrain without any particular purpose or direction, being lured and repulsed by its aromas and odors, glimpsing its denizens preoccupied with the everydayness of life in order to make their forgotten experiences speak to our own ... Although we cannot choose where we begin our lives, neither are we entirely powerless to decide the course they may take, Wang seems to suggest.
Its narrative arc—that of a young girl who learns to challenge convention and follow her heart—may not be wholly original, but its presentation, full of detours and side stories, makes for a memorable, smart study of the lives of ordinary people in Shanghai in the 1960s, during the second decade of Communist rule in China. Wang’s frequent digressions create an engaging novel overflowing with narrative threads that succeeds both as a character-driven story and as a commentary on the shifting belief systems between generations over the first two decades of the People’s Republic of China ... One of Wang Anyi’s greatest feats in the novel is her ability to eschew narrative conventions and usher the background players surrounding her protagonist to the fore ... digressions inform the reader of secret relationships, landscapes, and histories around Fu Ping’s own journey, painting a tangible setting for each character to occupy. This lax sense of direction quietly builds a sympathetic and complex world that pays off once the author again narrows her focus to Fu Ping’s story arc for the novel’s second half. It also allows Wang to detail the everyday actions of blue-collar workers, vignettes that come to life via Howard Goldblatt’s skillful translation ... Fu Ping’s fragmented structure may not be for every reader, but it nevertheless is a fruitful, clever ode to China’s blue-collar population.
Fu Ping...taken into a wonderfully equal rendition by Howard Goldblatt, exemplifies the thematic and aesthetic constants prevalent in her oeuvre, while simultaneously creating an illumination of city and community that leaves remarkably deep impressions by way of its quietude ... spareness, born in part out of scarcity, is embodied in Wang’s careful, exacting prose. Goldblatt does a remarkable job in the transference of this stoic voice into English, using transliteration where appropriate, and inserting lyrical pauses naturally in the language to mimic the freer use in Chinese of commas. As the novel is completely free of dialogue (conversations are written in the form of reportage), the maintenance of such a modest and—as Wang herself dictates—understated voice may earn the novel some criticism of being somewhat monotonous, but Goldblatt is entirely devoted to Wang’s original, and it culminates in an admitted slowness, the same way that a painting is slow—so it is that the reader is led to the details within the prose like a viewer is eventually led to all the contours and shadings of a portrait, coloured stroke by stroke until the entire world emerges ... Like so many Chinese stories told by mothers, grandmothers, and all the ones preceding, this one is in service to lives lived so that the world stands as it is today. In these voices, ordinariness rises to meet the sacred.