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December 12, 2010

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Young Brit's bleak tale of an old China

CHINA, 1946: the Japanese occupation is over, and the people of Fushun, Liaoning Province, are wondering when prosperity will return. But 16-year-old Yuying is anticipating the answer to her own big question - what her new husband will be like. Her father, the owner of three of the best restaurants in the city, has chosen a young man named Jinyi because he has agreed to take their family name, to live in their house and to let Yuying continue her studies. What Yuying doesn't know is that her future husband is illiterate and of peasant stock. Although only a few years older than she, he has led a life of great hardship. He is, however, a good and loyal person and a fine cook. And the one thing he has never had - and really wants - is a family.

The English writer Sam Meekings's accomplished first novel, "Under Fishbone Clouds," is based on the lives of his Chinese wife's grandparents. An unlikely love story set against the events of the last half-century in China, it's a tale of terrible suffering that also manages to be a poetic evocation of the country and its people.

After their marriage, as civil war engulfs their city, the couple set off on the first of many long, hard journeys, fleeing to Jinyi's home village. Desperate to protect his wife, Jinyi teaches her to slouch like a peasant and mumble as if she has "a mouth full of broken teeth," which - for the time being, at least - allows her to escape the attention of the advancing soldiers.

The pair return to the "ruined shrapnel-ridden city" of Fushun just as the People's Republic is declared. The party takes over the family's restaurants, and as a member of the old landlord class, Yuying must prove her loyalty by working at a factory. Somehow, she and her husband survive the famine that accompanies the Great Leap Forward. But then comes the era of the Red Guards. While youths march the streets administering "punishments" to their elders, Jinyi is attacked and badly beaten. A onetime employee of the restaurants, now a party official, denounces Yuying, and she and her husband are exiled to different parts of the countryside. It will be nine years before they're reunited, and even then their troubles will not be over.

Their story is related almost as if it were a fable - told by the Kitchen God of Chinese mythology, a jolly fellow who has made a bet with the Jade Emperor, Taoism's ruler of heaven, that it is possible to fathom the workings of the human heart. To do so, he follows Yuying and Jinyi through the course of their lives, trying to determine how their love can survive such terrible experiences. It's a device that enables Meekings to leaven his narrative with humorous anecdotes, philosophical asides and references to Chinese literature and legend, putting this personal story into a larger context.

Although he's only in his mid-20s, Meekings has already published a well-received book of poetry, "The Bestiary." And while his literary conceits can sometimes be too fantastical ("The sun sizzles down like a broken egg yolk over the hills"), his exuberance and verve win out. He imbues "Under Fishbone Clouds" with a magical atmosphere that lightens what might otherwise be an unbearably harrowing tale.


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