Monday, December 6, 2010

The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai by Ruiyan Xu — 352 pgs


Book CoverLi Jing is a successful Chinese businessman with a loving wife named Meling and a wonderful son. But one sunny afternoon, his life is changed forever. While dining with his father at an upscale restaurant, a gas explosion rips through the building, leaving him with a massive brain injury that robs him of his ability to speak his native language. The only way that Li Jing can communicate is through the English that he learned as a child growing up in Virginia. Despite their wealth, Li Jing and Meiling are unable to obtain the rehabilitation services he needs, leaving him socially isolated, as no one understands the rudimentary English he speaks. After hearing about her remarkable achievements in the areas of speech and cognition, they eventually hire Dr. Rosalyn Neal to work with Li Jing in China. Rosalyn, fleeing from a painful divorce and at a standstill in her research, comes to China with great hopes for both Li Jing and her career but finds herself lost in the busting world of Shanghai. Meanwhile, Li Jing's inability to communicate with his wife drives the couple further and further apart, leading to many awkward moments and explosive arguments. Under the guise of therapy, Rosalyn and Li Jing begin to form a tenuous relationship that further threatens to rip the family apart and which leaves Meiling bristling and resolute. In this lyrically moving and emotional new novel, Ruiyan Xu defines the inexplicable power of the words we say and the strength and enormity of the things we leave unsaid.

While this book initially left me feeling a bit lukewarm, I found that the further into it I got, the more resonant and heartbreaking the story became. The majority of the first section was a bit mired in description and scene setting, and while I found it interesting, I did feel like it was a slow buildup. I got the feeling that Xu had to warm up to her story a bit, and that as an author, the world she created took some time for her to fully inhabit. When the layers started peeling away and the carefully crafted scenes took center stage, I was blown away by the potency and hidden undercurrents in this book.

One thing that made a huge impression on me was the way Xu really got invested in her character creations. They could be cold, obnoxious and oh so flawed, and their resemblance to real people was something that I appreciated, but that at times made me squirm. This was particularly the case with the female characters. Rosalyn and Meiling were such different kinds of people and I found that different parts of my psyche reacted in a wildly divergent way while I was reading about them. In Rosalyn there was a high-spiritedness that sometimes bordered on hysteria and a lack of self-consciousness that, while making her friendly and approachable, seemed to also make her oblivious to social niceties and propriety. Meling, on the other hand, could be cold as ice at times. Very driven and proper, she could also be unforgiving and malicious. There were no outward signs of the hostility and discomfort that she was harboring within her heart, and this made her seem very unaffected and imposing to the other characters as well as myself. When Meiling and Rosalyn interacted, the fireworks shot right off the page, and frankly, their reactions to each other made me a little uncomfortable. Rosalyn seemed to be less intuitive when it came to Meling's emotional state, which made things much more tense and widened the gulf between them.

The story of what happens to Li Jing was strange but also very realistic. What does one do when the old ways of communicating are no longer valid and the only person that can understand you is alien and strange to you? Xu does a great job examining this, and in her creation of Li Jing she manages to fashion a character that is confused and alienated, yet still desperately wants to make himself and his wishes understood. This is a particularly moving situation, especially in the way it impacts his relationship with his young son. As Li Jing's life falls away piece by piece, it's only the husk of his former self that remains and he finds himself taking extraordinary risks both emotionally and physically to be understood and validated. It was hard to watch Li Jing become so impotent and powerless, so much of an afterthought to the characters surrounding him. One could also argue that Meiling does much to emasculate her husband, both in his professional life and at home, and this was also a terrible thing to witness. The situation Li Jing faces never really rectifies itself, becoming anguishing to experience as the story turns the final corner.

One way Xu really stands above the crowd in terms of her writing is her ability to construct tightly focused scenes that are somewhat emotionally restrained, yet devastating. Longing and desire juxtaposed with rage and pitilessness; capriciousness interposed with desolation: these are the emotions that come screaming out at the reader, despite the fact that the language used to interpret them is fairly restrained and subdued. There are scenes that brought me to my knees in unexpected sympathy and at times my stomach dropped with desolation at the humbling rendering of this now devastated family. Xu is a powerful writer, but she kind of creeps up on you, and in the end, it makes the impact of her story all the more striking. The inner thoughts and actions of her characters can be hard to stomach, and at times it's even hard to understand how they arrive at such complex crossroads within themselves.

In terms of emotional complexity, this book excels. It's deep and nuanced and it really surprised me. Although it does start out a bit slow, the buildup is intense, and by the time I finished it, I was left feeling some very powerful and contradicting feelings about its characters and the situations they were forced to live in. If you are the type of reader who gets easily engrossed in well-constructed dramatic stories, I would highly recommend this book to you. If you leave yourself open to it, it might just take you to some unexpected places.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

15 comments:

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

Sounds absolutely moving and incredible -- you had me at this: "In this lyrically moving and emotional new novel, Ruiyan Xu defines the inexplicable power of the words we say and the strength and enormity of the things we leave unsaid."

rhapsodyinbooks said...

It sounds like a really interesting premise that could also be a metaphor for all kinds of breaks in communication, but also very depressing!

TheBookGirl said...

It is always gratifying for me when I stick with a book that starts slow, and then it blossoms into something quite wonderful -- which is the sense I get from your review that that is what happened here. I love the fact that the characters she creates are so richly realized; that they have aspects to them that are so real as to be able to make the reader somewhat uncomfortable.
While I don't think I would attempt this one during the holidays, I will definitely keep it in my for the New year.
Thanks for the review.

Jenners said...

Why do you keep doing this to me??? You keep highlighting all these books and making me want to read them. I'm all for slow-building hearbreaking novels.

Darlene said...

Yet another one you've reviewed that sounds fantastic to me. This one sounds like an emotional book but one that sounds fascinating. Wonderful review as usual!

Suko said...

Incredible review, Zibilee! I need to add this book to my TBR stack!

bermudaonion said...

This does sound fascinating. I know for a fact that thing like that do happen - my uncle lost his ability to speak English when he was elderly.

Amy said...

What a review! I've been wanting to read this book for awhile and your review makes me want to get to it sooner rather than later!

Marie said...

Wow, sounds amazing. Wonderful review as always. I love how much depth you go into. I'm putting this on my wishlist rightnow :-)!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

This has been on my wishlist since early fall; another awesome review for you...thanks so much

Stacy at A Novel Source said...

now i want to know what happens in the end!!! just tell me - who does he end up with, the speech therapist or his wife? although the wife does not sound like a real winner....omg, heather, what an incredibly amazing review!

Aarti said...

Wow, what an interesting premise for a story! And great review, Heather- you managed to convey a great depth of the story without giving much away at all!

Suko said...

This book sounds very complex and complicated. Wonderful, in-depth review as usual.

Amy said...

Sounds really interesting - incredible review! The views on language and communication you'd get after this book sounds really interesting.

Melissa M said...

This sounds really interesting, and I think I might have a copy here too! Since my reading time is limited these days I might save a slow building book for when I can really get into the story.

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