I Am China by Xiaolu Guo [in Library Journal]
London-based Xiaolu Guo’s third novel in English (she published six prior in China) opens with a desperate love letter-in-transit “from a place I cannot tell you about yet…when I am safe I will be able to let you know where I am.” Over almost 400 pages, North London translator Iona Kirkpatrick, whose facility with foreign words allowed her to escape her confining Scottish island, pieces together the separated lovers’ history through letters, diaries, notes, and two photos. Jian, “the Number One Beijing punk star,” who insists that “all art is political expression,” and his beloved, a young poet named Mu, together survived and matured through a post-Tiananmen new China. Discovering them lays bare Iona’s own isolated, constricted existence.
Verdict: Guo’s latest suffers from uneven narrative sprawl, a cornucopia of too many Very Important Topics (political, cultural, gendered, personal disconnect), predictable plotting (especially regarding bedmates), and unnecessary implausible details (the Queen’s reply). Readers searching for more effective alternatives should consider Nina Schuyler’s The Translator for the mysteries of translation, Xinran’s China Witness for personal testimonies of elder Chinese generations, or even Guo’s own A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers for adventures of peripatetic 21st-century Chinese youth.
Published: 2014 (United States)