Title: I Am China
Author: Xiaolu Guo
Release Date: September 2, 2014
Publisher: Nan A. Talese
Genre: Cultural Fiction, Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Iona Kirkpatrick works out of her London flat, working on freelance projects as a translator. One day, she receives a packet of letters from a publisher; the publisher makes it clear that he has no idea what these contain, but that there might be enough within for a book. Iona quickly becomes obsessed with the story that emerges from these documents, of Chinese revolutionary musician Jian and his love, Mu, and the difficult choice he must make between the music he idealizes and the woman he loves.
Xialolu Guo has created a vivid portrait of music in modern China in I Am China, juxtaposing Jian’s fascinating story against the personal journey of Iona. Guo balances between these two narratives well, crafting fascinating personalities that leap off the page and draw the reader fully into this immersive tale.
I Am China tells the story of two very different people who are worlds away, yet so much closer than they could ever realize. At the beginning, it’s unclear why Guo chose to frame the story with Iona’s narration. She seems superfluous, a flat character among the vivid color of China. But as the novel progresses, Iona takes on a fully fleshed life of her own. Her story of self-discovery juxtaposes against Jian’s narrative; what’s more, Iona provides the narrative tension necessary for the novel, as she searches back and forth, trying to piece together Juan and Mu’s story. Though it takes a little time to come together, in the end, these dueling narratives are well done and each tells its own story within the larger sphere of this novel.
It’s Jian’s and Mu’s story that is at the heart of I Am China, though. He’s an angry young man, to be sure, insistent on bringing about change in China through his punk rock. He believes in the power of music, that it can bring about monumental changes. He’s young and idealistic, to be sure, and Guo builds him into a fascinating character. As the novel progresses, the reader sees Jian becoming more and more jaded. China isn’t tolerant of his message, and Jian becomes a political prisoner. He loses all connection to the world, except through Mu.
Indeed, this theme of love as a thin thread that binds a person to the real world is one that permeates I Am China. Both Iona and Jian are lost souls, floating through a world that doesn’t have the time to understand them and wouldn’t seem to mind if they disappeared. The only thing that keeps Jian a part of the world is his connection to Mu, one that expands and contracts over the course of time. Meanwhile, Iona’s link to the real world is tenuous at best; she has broken up with her boyfriend and works out of her flat. She is isolated, to be sure, and it’s only though love that Iona can become reconnected to the world around her. Guo is intent on portraying love as, quite possibly, the only thing that can save us.
If you enjoy cultural reads, Guo presents a fascinating picture of present-day China in I Am China. She does a great job developing her characters, and readers will feel a connection to them. It’s this emotional investment that will keep readers hooked on the book, intent on discovering the fate of Jian and Mu, as Iona scrambles to find out what happened to them and whether they found each other in the end.
Other books by Xiaolu Guo: