Uche Ogbuji's Reviews > The Visiting Suit: Stories From My Prison Life

The Visiting Suit by Xiaoda Xiao
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Dec 30, 10

bookshelves: memoir, culture
Read in December, 2010

This book makes me wish I were an editor. This is a wonderful story, or rather, a series of stories wonderfully interweaved. The subject matter is frequently very saddening, but that just emphasizes the quiet craft of the author. He lets the circumstances speak for themselves rather than trying to manipulate the reader with lugubrious excess.

The narrative follows Xiaoda through phases of his five year imprisonment in a Chinese labor camp for a silly drunken gesture that became expanded into a "political crime" and it truly carries the sense of peril that underlay the Cultural Revolution more effectively than anything else I've read. He manages to bring fellow prisoners and wardens to life within a few sentences, and soon the labor camp and such places become a tiny, terribly claustrophobic universe you cohabit with the author.

The penultimate chapter is named, as the book, "The Visiting Suit," and in itself is a monumental payoff, if you insist on one. In the context of everything that comes before, it becomes an extraordinary emblem of the power of dignified humanity even in the most inhuman of settings. I wouldn't necessarily say it would stand alone, but in context it ranks with the greatest fables I've ever read for its depth of moral statement. And don't let me give the impression by saying so that it reads as a traditional fable. Not at all. It's as subtle and engagingly told as the rest of the book.

The missing star follows from my first statement. Such a wonderful story deserved more thorough editing. I probably found problems that an editor should have caught every 3 or 4 pages. I'm no megalogrammarian, but solecisms can be distracting, and furthermore, some of the errors really affect the story. An example is a passage where the word "stern" (as of a boat) is frequently rendered incorrectly as "stem." You can see from those two words how that error can come about if the "r" runs into the "n" in tight font or handwriting of a manuscript, but an editor should have caught it at some point, and it tripped me up several times and distracted me while reading an otherwise interesting passage. There were also basic errors of continuity, and though I know the language is influenced by the author's native tongue, there are definitely areas where clearer wording would have helped a point stand out better. I don't think I've ever before in my life said to myself "this book makes me wish I were an editor, but it does."

I hope the book earns a second edition, and that these problems can be addressed therein. But it would take a lot more than these editorial problems to ruin such a powerful story.
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