Braised Pork by An Yu

Magic as metaphor…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

One morning, Jia Jia finds her husband dead in the bathtub in an odd position that leaves it unclear as to whether his death was accidental or suicide. Beside him is a piece of paper on which he has drawn a strange picture of a fish with a man’s head. As she tries to come to terms with the sudden change to her life and her expected future, Jia Jia finds herself thinking more and more about this fish-man, and decides to retrace her husband’s last trip to Tibet to try to find out its significance. Gradually she finds herself drifting into a place where the lines between reality and dreams become blurred…

This is an oddly compelling novel, beautifully written in a rather understated way. Jia Jia’s dream water world, where the fish-man exists, takes us into magical realist territory – never my favourite place – but again this is somewhat underplayed so that it never begins to feel too much like fantasy. While the “magical” aspects of it are presented as real, they can also be easily read as a metaphor for depression or despair, and the question is whether Jia Jia will become lost in this other world or find her way back to seeing a possible future for herself in this one. The water world is intriguingly ambiguous as a place that is both frightening and yet oddly comforting, where the deeper one goes the less there is, until nothingness becomes the main feature.

I’m not sure I fully got all the nuances of the water world metaphor – my mind is too resolutely rational to easily sink into fantastical symbolism. I wondered whether it arises from Chinese or Tibetan superstition or is wholly a creation of the author, and don’t know the answer to that. But it’s a tribute to how well and subtly it’s done that I was able to go along with it, and even to feel that it added to rather than detracting from the “real” story.

Jia Jia’s marriage was a rather cold one. She had never felt her husband had a passionate love for her – younger than him and beautiful, she was something of a trophy bride and suitable to be a mother for his children. On her side, he, as a settled, wealthy man, represented security, but there are signs also that she felt restricted in the marriage. She is an artist but although her husband was willing for her to continue to paint as a hobby, he did not feel it was appropriate for his wife to try to sell her work. There is a suggestion that he was emotionally controlling and that Jia Jia had reached a point where she was second guessing her own actions with a view to ensuring she met his expectations rather than her own. So his death, shocking as it is, plunges her into a state of uncertainty rather than deep grief – her secure future gone, the children she had anticipated having with him gone too. However, this new loss has taken her back to another, much greater grief – the death of her mother when she was a young girl. As she tries to discover the meaning of the fish-man, she will also learn more about her parents’ marriage and her mother’s life and death.

An Yu

This is a short book, and every word counts. It has an easy flow that makes it very readable – I read it in a couple of sessions and was fully absorbed all the way through. The magical aspects are introduced so gradually that they don’t become fully apparent until around halfway through, and seem to arise very naturally from what we have come to understand of Jia Jia’s state of mind. The rather muted imagery of the water world makes it easier to accept and yet the images linger once the last page is turned. Along the way we get some insight into the position of educated women in contemporary urban China, at a kind of halfway point where they have gained some social freedom but are still often judged within the conventions of more restrictive traditional codes of behaviour. Jia Jia is beautifully complex, with the minor flaws we all have, and her emotional journey is entirely credible. I found myself fully invested in hoping she could find a new path, perhaps even a more fulfilling one.

An excellent début that has left me eager to see how An Yu develops as an author in what I expect to be a glittering future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harville Secker.

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42 thoughts on “Braised Pork by An Yu

  1. This sounds good to me, especially with the mythological inclusions. 😊 Glad you enjoyed it! I can’t help thinking of some of the movies I’ve seen that were made in China. Many were all about history and the stories that had been passed down.

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    • I’d love to know if the magical stuff is based on a Chinese myth – no doubt later better informed reviewers will tell us at some point! Somehow I can cope with mystical elements from the mysterious east better than from at home… 😀

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  2. What a fascinating-sounding book, FictionFan! It sounds as though the magical realism aspects are done very well, and that makes all the difference. Some of Gabriel García Márquez’ work is like that, too. There’s magical realism, but it’s very skillfully done, so that the reader feels drawn in to the author’s world. I also like the sound of the social commentary, too. Enough to speak to the reader about a given social topic, but not preaching or bashing the reader over the head with an agenda. Glad you liked this so well.

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    • I’ve always been a bit worried to try Gabriel García Márquez because I’m so bad at accepting magical realism, so I’m glad to hear he does it subtly too – maybe I’ll try to get over my doubts and try him! I did like the way she simply portrayed modern lives for urban Chinese women without trying to make points – I always feel the reader is well able to make the points for herself if the book is written well enough. It’ll be interesting to see how An Yu develops – she certainly has talent!

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  3. I actually think I would enjoy this, as I am starting to warm a little bit to Magical Realism, provided the emphasis of the story is on how the people react to the magical or fantastical world, rather than on the fantastical world itself. Fundamentally, this sounds like a story about very human issues, so I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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    • I’m not sure that I like what it says about me that I can always cope with magical or mystical elements much better in a book from or about the mysterious Orient! Too much yellow peril when I was young, I suspect. 😉 But I did think it was handled subtly in this one and definitely the story was more about the people than the magic. I was able to think of it as a metaphor quite easily, making it more acceptable to my anti-fantasy brain…

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    • Thank you! 😀 I usually struggle with any magical elements at all, though I get on better if they seem to arise out of folklore. I don’t know if it does in this one but it has that kind of feeling…

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    • I didn’t know what to expect from it, having chosen it purely on the grounds that the blurb sounded intriguing, but I thought it was an impressive debut. It’ll be interesting to see how An Yu develops as a writer – she clearly has talent!

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  4. Despite your great review, I don’t know if this is one I’d want to tackle. I’m a pretty straight forward, face value kind of person. It’s why I’m very picky about poetry.

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    • I’m the same – my credibility meter starts beeping as soon as any kind of magic or fantasy appears. But it’s done subtly enough in this one that I was able to go with the flow for once! If you take the magical realism out, there’s still an interesting story in there…

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    • I thought she was very wise to keep it short and underplay the magic realist element – many debut writers make the mistake of thinking they need to dot every i and cross every t, but sometimes leaving the reader to do part of the work is more effective. I’ll be keeping an eye on her in the future for sure!

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  5. I’m not big on magical realism either, but you’ve made this one sound tempting. Always nice to find a new author with a debut that points to lots of good things to come!

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    • The magical realism element was minor enough to let my rational brain go with the flow for once – once I’d decided to look on it as a metaphor it stopped bothering me the way it usually would. I love reading a good debut and then watching to see how the author develops in future books… 😀

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  6. Haha, when you write about metaphors, symbolism and magical realism, I can’t help thinking of – yes you guessed correctly – Murakami. Are you sure, you don’t want to give him another try? It sounds like a wonderful novel and I’ve barely read anything by Chinese authors. Of course, I am still in my “don’t by new books before old ones have been read” phase (this is how I came across Camilleri’s A Shape of Water – amazing what you can find in the corners of your Kindle…)

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    • Haha! At least with this one I was fairly sure what the magic was a metaphor for! If memory serves me right that was one of my issues with Murakami – half the time I didn’t know what message he was trying to get across! 😉 I’ve hardly read any Chinese authors either – in fact, the only other ones I can think of have been crime novels. Funny you should say that – I’ve just been delving into the depths of my Kindle to see what’s lurking there… 😀

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  7. I’m with Rose in that I admit to finding the title offputting. If I saw this in the library, I wouldn’t pick it up because of the title. I assume the reason for that choice is apparent within the story? That said, I’m tempted, FF. If it’s impressed you despite the magical realism then it ought to be right up my street. 🙂

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    • Yes, the title is explained, but unfortunately I can’t give any clues since it would be a pretty big spoiler – but it does fit, honest! 🙃 I think people who love magical realism are complaining there’s not enough of it in the book, but for me that’s a bonus. Less is more!

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  8. How interesting! I like books which involve magical aspects which are well integrated and make sense. It certainly sounds like the author did a great job with the world building and setting. Brilliant review!

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  9. Fantasy is my thing, and I’ve added this to my list. Thanks for the recommendation. In my early 20s I read and loved Gabriel García Márquez’ books. I remember finishing reading 100 Years of Solitude and just wanting to turn to the front and start again. I wonder if I’d feel the same now.

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    • I’ve been surprised at how in tune my younger self and my… ahem… more mature self have been when I’ve recently read a couple of books I loved when I was young. I’ve never tried Marquez, though, because the fantasy aspects always put me off – maybe one day! In this one the magical stuff is pretty low key which is why it worked for me. I hope it doesn’t feel too low key for you!

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