Once, every half century, at longest, wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne in The House of Seven Gables, a family should be merged into the great obscure mass of humanity and forget all about its ancestors. A hopeful, democratic, and particularly American suggestion, but isn't ancestry, one's place in apersonal, familial, and cultural lineage, a difficult fact to ignore or erase? It is the obsessive concern with this question that drives the plot of Nicole Mones's ambitious debut novel, Lost in Translation. At the center of the novel is protagonist Alice Mannegan who has lived formany years in self-imposed exile in the People's Republic of China. Mannegan has left behind a complicated family entanglement in the States: her widowed father is a Congressman widely known for his stubborn stand on segregation. Mannegan is haunted not only by her father's racism but by a particular incident a murderous race riot for which she feels responsible. At 36, Mones's heroine, a translator who lives in the hazy no man's landbetween languages, is a lost soul whose existential longing for resolution toher problems is manifested in a desperate desire to merge with things Chinese.
She tries to erase her own identity through sexual hunger, prowlingBeijing discotheques in search of men, using an assumed name Yulian, or Fragrant Lotus and attempting to ritually adopt a dead Chinese woman as her ancestor.
But Mannegan's personal history is largely the back-story of the novel. Inthe foreground, she is an interpreter for a team of American and Chinese scientists who travel to China's desert Northwest, home of Mao's infamous prison labor camps and, more symbolically, the edge of the Chinese genetic world. The team believes they will find the bones of Sinanthropus, or Peking Man, which have been missing since World War II.
Much is at stake here. The rediscovery of the bones last in the possessionof a Jesuit priest will provide both Western and Asian scholars withevidence that will reinforce their notions of evolution and race. For theChinese in particular, the find could rule out the distasteful possibilitythat [they] might be descended from Africans. For Mannegan, the location of the bones may help her to understand, at last, her own place in some larger mosaic. In the end, Lost in Translation, which is authoritative in its description ofmodern China (Mones is an old China hand) is in equal parts a detectivestory and romance. On the search for Peking Man, Mannegan becomes involved with a Chinese homo erectus (!) expert who tries to teach her that despite her desire to shed her own origins and become Chinese, in the words of a Chinese proverb, you can move mountains and alter the course of rivers more easily that you can change a person's nature. Julie Checkoway is the author of Little Sister: Searching for the ShadowWorld of Chinese Women and the Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Georgia.