Do we need language? To what extent is identity tied to expression, and to what extent is it something innate, preverbal? What if you were suddenly unable to speak your native tongue, but remained painfully cognizant of everything said around you? Ruiyan Xu’s poignant and impressive debut, The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai, explores such conundrums.
The book opens with a dramatically rendered scene: a Shanghai hotel torn apart by a massive and violent gas explosion. Among the survivors is Li Jing, a businessman who has sustained severe head injuries. Although he initially seems fine, the doctors quickly diagnose a terrible condition: Broca’s aphasia, which hinders Li’s ability to speak—though not to understand—a single word of Chinese. Curiously, he is able to communicate in almost perfect English, a language he has not used since childhood, when he lived briefly in the United States. His newfound speechlessness devastates not only Li but also his beloved wife, Meiling, who finds her once effusive and loquacious husband suddenly dull and foreign. Meanwhile, an American neurologist, Rosalyn Neal, is flown halfway around the world to work with Li on unraveling his linguistic web. But as the recently divorced and decidedly culture-shocked physician grows to understand—and care deeply—for her patient, she also learns that restoring one’s “former life” is never as easy as it seems.
Xu, who was born in Shanghai and moved to New York City when she was 10 years old, no doubt understands the dualities and misalignments of the bilingual mind, and her writing shines most when she delves deeply into Li’s troubled subconscious. She struggles, however, with plot and pacing, working too hard, at times, to turn her characters’ inner turmoil into outward action. Still, this first novel compels on both intellectual and emotional levels, calling into question the nature and necessity of one of our most uniquely human abilities.