In the fictional Chinese city of Yong'an, an amateur cryptozoologist is tasked with uncovering the stories of its fabled beasts, which draws her deep within a mystery that threatens her very sense of self.
The narrator, a cryptozoologist, author and newspaper columnist with a fondness for cigarettes, booze and high jinks, is the book’s strength. Her wry, melancholy voice and bottomless curiosity imbue it with wonder and rumination ... The atmosphere of Strange Beasts of China is delightful. Through the narrator’s futile quest to catalog beasts, Yan captures the fluidness of city life, the way urban space defies definition even for people hellbent on making sense of it. There’s no bedrock to Yong’an’s riddles, so the narrator is constantly revising her understanding of the beasts and herself. Human and beast exist in constant flux, clashing, merging and splintering with tectonic regularity ... Regrettably, the book does not build on that friction. By hewing so closely to the taxonomic framework of the bestiary and treating each chapter as a distinct case study, Yan introduces repetitive narrative beats, such as the narrator going to her favorite bar to chase leads or calling her former zoology professor for advice. These repetitions probably wouldn’t stand out in a story collection, but in a novel they are redundant; the narrator seems to reset every chapter. The book’s symmetrical structure also highlights the lack of interactions among the different beast communities, which are hermetically sealed off from one another despite frequent mentions of their ubiquity. Yan invokes the creatures’ strangeness without probing their existence; we are rarely privy to beasts’ perspectives on themselves, their fellow beasts or humanity. Although Yong’an brims with mood and mystique, it lacks culture.
As she excavates the dark, often tragic histories of these beasts, a profound ecological parable begins to emerge from the bones and jagged skin of these creatures, albeit one that offers no easy morals. What appears to be a postmodern series of fantastic fables morphs into something more unexpected, expertly crafted by Yan Ge: an obscure mediation on the wildness of everyday existence, an evocative, bizarre consideration of the fragile boundaries between the self and the world beyond.
The book maintains a lighthearted tone that, accompanied by the sometimes bizarre behavior of the characters, gives the tales a whimsical feel but never dulls the impact of the dangers the writer faces while navigating her world. Indeed, it often contributes to a sense of tragedy, which pervades the narrative as a whole ... The construction of a text with such a mixed tone, which never becomes jarring, is one of the highest achievements of Yan Ge’s book and that of her translator, Jeremy Tiang ... The sometimes-complicated twists of the narrative mean that it benefits from a rereading. The threads leading to the revelations at the end become clearer, and an understanding of the narrator develops. A rereading does not dampen its disquieting and mixed tone, however, nor does it reduce the impact of the psychologically threatening situations that the narrator faces. The book is unsettling and remains so. Prospective readers should expect to be presented with a narrative world in which answers are actively hidden from the narrator while pushing for explanations leads to cruel rebukes. This does not mean that there is no room for a cautious optimism within the narrative, though, and this optimism is provided by writing.