An Yu’s debut work leaped off the shelf to me – a beguiling cover design (it’s no surprise that Harvill Secker have put its best creative support behind this considering the 7-way auction) and a fabulously intriguing title. This was one of those books I wanted to read as little as possible about beforehand.
Braised Pork is a short book (not much more than 60,000 words, I estimate), but one worth taking time over. It feels ambling, almost aimless, but it builds into a mysterious and moving journey into grief, loss, hope and change.
Wu Jia Jia is a Beijinger and a lapsed artist in her early thirties, ‘not particularly striking and rather short’. The book opens compellingly with Jia Jia finding her husband Chen Hang drowned in a half-filled bath. I thought immediately of Morvern Callar (which I know only through Lynne Ramsey’s film) and Braised Pork seems to set a similar tone in its exploration of Jia Jia’s grief. I admired the way in which An Yu conveyed a more complex grief. Chen was no great love for Jia Jia and she resents him in death, feeling she wasted the best years of her life with him. And yet her grief is tangible, and her guilt when she sleeps with the barman Leo is affectingly described.
We meet a series of supporting characters which are distinctively and often amusingly drawn – Leo, Mrs Wan, Jia Jia’s Auntie, her Tibetan guide. I laughed out loud at Jia Jia’s meeting with Leo’s parents. An Yu writes with a clear, sparse style which reminded me of translated Chinese fiction (while raised in Beijing, she writes in English) and which particularly lends itself to seemingly unimportant details and anecdotes – see the young car park attendant arguing with a Porsche driver – and help build the sense of Jia Jia’s uprooted world.
This sparse, realistic style really comes into its own in the naturalistic dream sequences. I usually roll my eyes at dream sequences in novels I liked these, in particular the way An Yu presents the real and the unreal colliding (is it a coincidence that Jia is a homophone of ‘jia’, ‘unreal’?) – they were vivid, sensual and mysterious and drove our understanding of Jia Jia and her journey.
They are also watery – very watery. Right from the start of the book we are immersed in watery imagery, to the extent that I found it heavy-handed at times (witness Jia Jia discussing how difficult she finds painting water; and explaining that Chen Hang didn’t like water, a ‘dangerous and wild substance’). As strongly foreshadowed, water becomes very important – Chen Hang left a drawing of a strange fish-man, and Jia Jia’s journey takes her to Tibet where she discovers the source of the fish-man and its meaning. The watery imagery was a source of dissonance for me at times – we carry the title of the book we’re reading in our head, and Braised Pork set an expectation of fleshy, not fishy, imagery. But it’s a small complaint.
The title refers to a dish which appears twice in the book – once as the emotional core of the story, and once foreshadowing it. At the end, Jia Jia’s father serves Jia Jia braised pork (a dish she asked for every day as a girl) precipitating a deeply affecting emotional collapse after which her father resolves the mystery of the fish-man. Earlier, after discovering her father had married ‘that woman’ without telling her, Jia Jia imagines them eating braised pork together:
They were effortlessly in sync, becoming one another… They were on the opposite shore of a deep river that Jia Jia could not cross, on an island that had no space for her.
This is the heart of the book, and draws it all together. As Jia Jia envies her father and his wife being ‘in sync’, so she envies the ‘clear destination’ of Ren Qi, a fellow Beijinger she meets in Tibet looking for his wife, despite his distressing situation. Jia Jia’s quest is about change and how we react to change, with grief as the ultimate expression of change. Specifically it explores hope, and how fickle hope can be in those periods of our life when everything is in flux and life seems against us. In Jia Jia’s case this is shown as she tries to replicate a drawing Chen’s fish-man but is unable to complete the face or produce a good likeness, and her hope of finding resolution grows and fades as she paints. This feeling is addressed directly to the barman Leo:
‘Do you ever feel that sometimes, when something happens to you,’ she said, ‘something deep inside you changes? You can’t undo it, and you wonder whether this is the person you want to be.’
An Yu’s sparse style led me to expect something cold but impressive; this was far more moving and expressive than I had thought. For instance, Jia Jia’s musing that the ‘past seemed to have become merely what remained’ feels like a timeless aphorism in its effortless, earnest simplicity. Her little inventive touches, either thematic like the dream sequences or structural like part of the denouement coming via text message, are accomplished. By way of criticism, I didn’t feel it developed a sense of place, either in Beijing or Tibet, and I was thrown by the occasional change of perspective as we see Jia Jia through Leo’s eyes, for instance. Some of the dialogue is a little ponderous, not helped by the overdone watery imagery (“’Do you think I’m beautiful?’ Jia Jia asked. ‘You’re like water. Your beauty is soft and quiet.’”), although while the watery imagery felt overdone it was effective.
It was fitting that, the morning after I finished the book, I spilled a glass of water over it. It is currently drying out on the patio in the spring lockdown sunshine.