It's rare that I don't finish a book - even when I'm not enjoying a book, I still aim to finish it, I just don't like to leave something unfinished in...moreIt's rare that I don't finish a book - even when I'm not enjoying a book, I still aim to finish it, I just don't like to leave something unfinished in any facet of my life - but such is the case with Cries in the Drizzle. I picked it to read for the Around the World in 12 Books Challenge in October for a few reasons, but none of them are particularly important: I simply wanted to read it for the same reason I want to read anything - to learn more, to experience someone else's life, to open up my own for a new voice, a different perspective, and the hope to be inspired or touched in some way.
Sadly, Yu Hua's fictionalised autobiography became a real slog to read, and at 186 pages (out of 304), I decided to stop trying to read it. One thing was blazingly clear: it wasn't going to improve in the last hundred pages, not for me. Not finishing a book always leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth, but October was a month of reading struggle in general and a book like this was proving to be a real block to recapturing my stride and making progress on other titles. But because this was for a challenge, I wanted to share my thoughts on what I did read, and why it didn't work for me.
Essentially it boils down to the writing as the primary problem; secondly, the story itself. The first is the most subjective, and plenty of readers will love the writing style and connect with it in ways that were simply impossible for me. Set in rural China in the 1960s, Cries in the Drizzle tells the story of an impoverished family through the eyes of its narrator, Sun Guanglin. Guanglin is the middle child of three boys, Sun Guangping and Sun Guangming. His father, Sun Kwangstai, is a horrible man, with a mean temper, a drinking habit and a seemingly complete inability to love others or care for anyone but himself. His mother is a bit of a nonentity, and his grandfather, Sun Youyuan, who lives with them, is self-abasing towards Sun Kwangstai, a bit of a coward and a doddery old man who sits in the corner daydreaming about his dead wife, who was once the daughter of a rich man.
Sun Guanglin was sold to a military officer when he was six, but returns to his home village of Southgate when he's twelve; compared to his real family and life in Southgate, life with Wang Liqiang and his wife was wonderful. It isn't until Part 4 that the narrator speaks with any depth about this time in his life, and I didn't read that far. Divided into sections that deal with chunks or themes in his childhood and adolescence, Sun Guanglin tells stories about his brothers, his parents, the widow his father had a lengthy affair with, his friendships with Su Yu and Su Hang at school, troubles with girls and going through puberty, and the history of his grandfather and great-grandfather, who were stone masons and bridge builders before war, famine and poverty struck.
I tend to be a fairly organised person, and Sun Guanglin's story has no real structure to it, making it hard for me to follow. Even in the midst of a story, he seemed to change direction completely from one paragraph to the next, and gave no indication that this was a relevant tangent to the story he's telling and it'll all come together just wait. It reminded me of my struggle reading John Elder Robison's memoir, Look Me in the Eye: My Life With Asperger's. The scattered, unfocused style is much the same, and Hua's storytelling style tends to come across as a bit flimsy, weakly put together, and poorly fleshed out. It is no doubt his style, and some readers will enjoy it, but it's not for me. My brain and Hua's brain just aren't compatible: we think differently, in terms of rhythm and rhyme, like we're two different musical instruments each playing a different song.
There is humour here, and plenty of farce - especially in the stories Guanglin tells of his ancestors; it's comical but not funny. The one thing that does come across strongly is the atmosphere of utter poverty, and the disconnect between the state and the working classes. One of the saddest stories is about the little boy called Lulu, whose mother is arrested and sent to a labour camp for prostitution. Lulu is left behind to fend for himself. A boy of six! There is no other family, no one to care for him or feed him, and while his mother wasn't in the slightest bit nurturing or loving, she at least provided a home for him. I loved her response to the interrogation at the Public Security Bureau: "The clothes you wear, they're issued by the state, and your paychecks too. So long as you're taking care of state business, you're doing your jobs all right. But my vagina belongs to me - it's not government issue. Who I sleep with is my affair, and I can look after my own vagina perfectly well, thank you very much." [pp.134-5]
There are quite a few mini-stories or scenes that touch of the people's alienation from their own bodies, and complete lack of understanding or education around their bodies, their sexuality, anything practical or emotional and psychological of that nature. It's quite sad, and combined with the images of poverty and the sense of these people as being quite disposable and without real value, Cries in the Drizzle paints a pretty bleak picture of communist China. It does maintain its focus on the people, not the politics; you simply glean truisms from the stories of people's lives. I just wish those stories had been easier to follow; the narration is disjointed, and Sun Guanglin's habit of omniscience robs the stories he tells of authenticity: How does he know what happened, what someone was thinking, what Su Yu was feeling as he lay dying? He wasn't there. It's all conjecture, speculation, and this undermines the credibility of his story - especially as it reads like a memoir.
With no plot, there is little direction to this coming-of-age story. There's no forward momentum or impetus. When you have a plotless novel, it's down to the characters to carry the story. In some ways, this being a story about people, the characters are well fleshed out. And yet they always remain caricatures of themselves. There's no real depth or understanding to them. Sun Guanglin's narration remains consistent in this regard: how he talks about people is the same as how he talks about events - from a distance, both all-knowing and superficial. It's perplexing, and frustrating. Annoying, even. Even when people die, when children die - something that, these days, never fails to bring on the waterworks - I was left largely untouched. Cries in the Drizzle failed to connect with me emotionally, and without that connection - on top of a lack of plot and basic structure - I had no reason to keep reading. Time to move on. (less)
What a mess! Can't tell how much of it is the lack of formatting and chopping up of the text in my e-book galley from Netgalley, and how much of it...moreDNF
What a mess! Can't tell how much of it is the lack of formatting and chopping up of the text in my e-book galley from Netgalley, and how much of it is the story itself, but either way I just can't finish it.(less)
I rarely do this, but I have to face facts: I'm not going to finish this book. Maybe I could have another day, another time, a different place and...moreDNF
I rarely do this, but I have to face facts: I'm not going to finish this book. Maybe I could have another day, another time, a different place and mood, but considering I was reading this in April for the Around the World in 12 Books Challenge, I've run out of time and must admit defeat. Out of 247 pages I read to page 126.
Shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize (now the Man Booker Prize), this story about a boy called Yusuf who is sold into the service of a successful merchant to pay his father's debts when he is 12, has much to recommend it and I don't in the slightest want to put anyone else off reading it.
Set during a time of European expansion in Africa - sometime before WWII, judging by the descriptions of the German's silver cross flag (after the war, Africa was divided up more clearly by the Europeans but before it, places like Tanzania saw several different colonisers - I picture them mapping their way through the land, deciding which bits they want based on the natural resources available) - this place that wasn't quite Tanzania yet is on the cusp of losing its pre-colonial identity. Through Yusuf's innocent, uneducated eyes we get glimpses and snippets of the presence of Germans, Belgiums and Brits, though most of the time the locals don't even know - or care - what country they're from.
Interestingly enough, though, the Indians seem to have largely "joined the other side", so to speak, and are practically native, with their own insights into colonialism. The clash of cultures is delicate, subtle and quite beautifully rendered, and entirely from the perspective of the Africans (at least up to where I read) in the days before the Europeans brought their own war to African soil. Take this snippet of conversation between Kalasinga, a Shiekh Indian who lives almost like a local (and is accepted by them), and Hussein, a shop keeper who lives in a village halfway up the mountain:
'In India they have been ruling for centuries,' Kalasinga said. 'Here you are not civilized, how can they do the same? Even in South Africa, it is only the gold and the diamonds that make it worth while killing all the people there and taking the land. What is there here They'll argue and squabble, steal this and that, maybe fight one petty war after another, and when they become tired they'll go home.'
'You're dreaming, my friend,' Hussein said. 'Look how they've already divided up the best land on the mountain among themselves. In the mountain country north of here they've driven off even the fiercest peoples and taken their land. They chased them away as if they were children, without any difficulty, and buried some of their leaders alive. Don't you know that? The only ones they allowed to stay were those they made into servants. A skirmish or two with their weapons and the matter of possession is settled. Does that sound as if they've come here for a visit? I tell you they're determined. They want the whole world.' [pp86-7]
But the novel itself seemed to be less about colonialism - at least directly - and more about the end of Africa's isolation from foreign interests and greed. As Yusuf journeys into the interior with the merchant, Aziz, and a large retinue of porters and guards, conversation and descriptions of landscapes become more and more about, well, paradise. Not having finished it, I don't have a complete picture of the novel and where it's going, thematically, but I wanted to at least share with you what I gleaned from the half that I did read. It's also about religion - namely Islam, seeing as the people converted to it long before the Europeans arrived - and paradise as a garden is the highest level of heaven in that religion. I can't even say if this is presented in an overly romantic or nostalgic way - it didn't seem so, but I'd need to read the whole thing.
As I said, I don't want to put anyone else off reading this. Where I struggled was with the prose. It's technically, or grammatically, an easy story to read, but my mind constantly wandered and the way the story's written, I found it very hard to visualise as I read, making it even harder for me to concentrate and focus on the story.
You know how sometimes you read a story that you loved and you say something like, it drew me in or I got lost in the story or even the more dull, I couldn't put it down. Those stories stay with us for a long time, and the magic of the prose lingers on in our heads - as do the images. This was the opposite of that, for me. I felt immensely distant from the actual story, by not the words per se but the structure of the sentences. It occurred to me at some point that this could very well be an African style of storytelling, which I struggled with because I'm so used to a European, or western style of storytelling. I'm not even sure that sharing a quote would help get this across, as there was no particular passage that alienated me and it all reads perfectly well. Maybe that's the problem: maybe it's too literal for me and so I had a hard time visualising. I'm sure a linguist would have a theory or two.