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BOOK REVIEW: Lotus Review
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Lotus Review

c24d square origThis novel by Lijia Zhang is her first following her caustic memoir Socialism Is Great! and it is about growing up in China during the 1980s.

It follows Lotus, a ji (prostitute) working in one of Shenzhen's massage parlors. With intelligence and determination, Lotus has ambitions of making more of her existence, though life and misfortune plant endless obstacles, while her slow-burning relation with the educated freelance photographer Hu Bingbing might change her life - in several ways. Zhang takes the reader through the seedy backstreets and gluttonous self-celebratory hotel dining rooms, the shining forbidding skyscrapers and cramped ill-favored accommodation that a low to mid-level ji might experience. (The novel was inspired by Zhang's grandmother's deathbed revelation that she had been sold into a brothel). We also see, in counterpoint, Lotus' background in Sichuan, where rural labor struggles to wrench a living yet feels like "the real China" for so many new unrooted urban migrants.

Zhang attempts a poetic prose rich with metaphor, peppered with the earthy curses and unpretentious idioms of Chinese workers. It's a good idea, but unfortunately she doesn't quite have the mastery of English to bring it off. For one thing, she usually fixes the most common adjective to any noun she seeks to describe. Meat is "juicy", headaches are "pounding", muddled heads feel "cloudy" and so on. Similarly, the coarse phrasing and cynical expectations of some of the other ji sometimes feel a little strained, as though Zhang were translating from one language into another. Of course it must be hard to capture the guttural essence of a language, but the author doesn't quite have the knack for it yet.

I was also rather unconvinced about some of the characterization. In particular the character Hu Binging, whose relationship with Lotus moves absurdly slowly, has motivations which do not always seem clear. The male characters in the novel generally lack the roundedness the female characters have. Similarly, while Lotus attempts to better herself and support her family, this pretty much makes her a "tart with a heart", a stock-in-trade for urban fiction for many decades.

Nonetheless, Lotus has heart. We root for the main character and we empathize with her. We feel her pain and her yearning. This is no little achievement, and Zhang is to be commended for that. But it also makes us hope for more from her in future.


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