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.
You’ll have a decision to make when you start reading Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China. Will you willpower yourself to one story a night and savor each paragraph, immersing deeply in an alternate world? Or will you forego sleep and race through, riding the momentum of breathtaking inventions and repetitions that strike deeply into the core of what it is to be human? ... The multiple temporalities of the different species offer a heady reading experience, which is anchored by the details Yan Ge metes out, another sign of her assured storytelling ... readers are immediately engaged on a personal level, regardless of whether or not they like or fear or hate the same things ... Even as our protagonist is tumbled about like a new leaf in a sudden squall, the real storyteller, Yan Ge, is in precise control of the narrative, especially necessary if we are to reside and believe in this world. In her delicate and powerful hands, readers will not want to leave ... One could term these stories Scheherazadean, but that doesn’t do them nor their author, justice. Yan Ge—who writes in Sichuanese, Mandarin and English—and her talented translator Jeremy Tiang have created a mesmerizing experience that speaks to both our wonder at 'once upon a times' as well as our deepest examinations of what is beastly and humane in our world and ourselves ... With Yan Ge’s poetic prose and limitless imagination, this would have been a satisfying novel even if it were solely a series of exquisite tales and allegories, but her scope and talent arrow far beyond such boundaries ... It’s a more beautiful world because of these remarkable, unforgettable stories. That I’m sure of. That I know.