Writer and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo - whose A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers was short-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction last year - has brought us another novel full of beauty and soul in Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth.
Twenty-one-year-old Fenfang Wang has escaped her parents' sweet potato farm for the bright lights of Beijing, desperate to make it in TV and film. Scoring credits like "scared girl in police chase" and generally trying to stay afloat in the big city, she becomes involved with two men, wanders down several vocational dead ends and sharply observes the world around her. One day she decides to start writing, and that simple act of pen to paper leads her to self-realization in unexpected ways.
Although Fenfang is a young female in the city, she isn't really Carrie Bradshaw. Neither is she, necessarily, a voice of youthful angst. Instead, she is something rare and precious: a fresh voice. She's sardonic and detached, yet full of dreams, desires and wisdom.
East meets West in Fenfang's relationship with Bostonian Ben, and generations clash in her communal apartment building. And as Fenfang relocates throughout the city, we continue to gain insight into her China. In 20 brief snatches, lyrical and rich even in their leanness - with accompanying photos by the author - Guo creates something poetic and gritty that feels very true.
With China so firmly in the global spotlight, it's tempting to make Twenty Fragments into merely a window through which we might see and understand the world's most populous nation. And the novel does function that way: Fenfang is coming of age as China is coming of age. In some ways, she is Beijing.
But she is also universal in her growing up. Her story puts us in touch with the part of us that's starving and striving, desperate for something to break and overjoyed when it finally does. In that way, she guides us, not just through a culture, but through life itself.
Jessica Inman writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma.