Sheng Keyi (author), Shelly Bryant (translator), Wild Fruit, Penguin, 2018. 350 pgs.
Wild Fruit is split into three sections, each documenting the various stories of Li Xiaohan’s immediate and extended family. The chronological aspect of the novel is set against China’s explosive urban development, which forces most of the family members to relocate to the city and inevitably be swallowed and consumed by it.
The first section of Wild Fruit focuses on introducing the characters, life in their village and their relationships. The book wastes no time establishing how Xiaohan’s grandfather, Li Xinhai, is a tyrant, despite being “always elegantly dressed” and passionate about “reading and gambling,” so much so that when his wife died, “he was reluctant to put the cards away.” He raped Xiaohan’s father’s first wife, who then committed suicide, and from that moment onwards, “father and son were bitter rivals, like two old oxen used to grazing on their own.” However, despite the many arguments and reprimands between the father and the grandfather, the latter “put on a calm expression and a manner that indicated that at the end of the day, he was still my father’s father.” Xinhai’s gambling addiction made him “squander the family fortunes, losing the land and ancestral home early on” alongside other precious heirlooms. This made the father bitter, and turn his anger on the animals and the rest of the family, reflecting much of the violence that is present throughout the first section. In fact, when Xiaohan’s elder sister, Chuntian, was born, he snatched the baby “in one swoop” and “walked silently to the water’s edge” to drown her “before she could become a burden.” Nevertheless, Chuntian was saved, and after hearing the story as she grew up, she would often go “to the temple of the God of the Earth to pray for my father’s sudden death.” At this point, we are ten pages into the novel, and it already seems like we are ticking boxes: tyrannical elder relative who, despite the horrible things he did, is to be respected because of filial piety? Check. Squandering of family fortunes? Check. Killing infant daughters because they had the misfortune of being born female? Check, check, check. It seems Wild Fruit tries quite hard to establish that it is a Chinese novel, perhaps in part to appeal to an audience expecting a Chinese novel. As far as introductions go, Wild Fruit begins strong, despite the mellow and distant style of writing. The shocking deeds of the grandfather, as well as others throughout the novel, are described in a matter-of-fact way. As the book progresses, it wants you to care about the many characters, and as some stories are written out due to various circumstances, the emotional impact is not as powerful as intended due to the manner in which it is presented.
The second section documents the family’s relocation to the city (mainly in the Guangdong area). Xiaohan goes to university in Beijing and gets transferred to a newspaper in Guangzhou; Xiao Shui Chin, her eldest brother’s sister-in-law, opens a tailoring business; Yicao and Yihua, Chuntian’s daughters, go to school in the city. And so things seem to improve for the family. Perhaps the most touching moment in the novel is when Chuntian and her husband Liu Zhima decide to open a skewer stall as a side-business and try to evade the food authorities, since it operates without the necessary permits. The community helps them as well by warning them about upcoming inspections or whether inspectors have been spotted in the area. The moment works, because as Chuntian began to regret eloping with her now husband just to spite her father to the point she is considering a divorce, they have found something to bond over, and their minor success is translated into the success of their marriage. However, moments like these are scarce in the 340-page book. And, as expected, they are short lived. The city is a place where people from the countryside are looked down upon and exploited. But in Xiaohan’s city, it is a place of sexual liberation. As with the other family members who struggle to live in the city doing menial jobs, Xiaohan’s accounts are peppered with her desires, stories about her past boyfriends and the lessons she receives from Yehe Nara in “food, drinks, entertainment, and love.” To some extent, Xiaohan’s early accounts in part two function as a more light-hearted segment of the novel, contrasting with the often brutal survival of the rest of the family.
In the third part, however, things come crashing down, and this is where the novel falls flat. In a matter of twenty to thirty pages, characters die, get fired from their job as a reporter and/or put in prison for exposing ugly truths about detention in Communist China, businesses going bankrupt, illness, and so on. Yicao allegedly gets gang-raped at her graduation party and commits suicide by jumping off a building; Yihua gets murdered by an overly-attached boyfriend; Liu Zhima, Chuntian’s husband, goes into a fit after hearing of the murder of her daughter and assaults and kills one of the food inspectors, and is sentenced to death as a result; Xiao Shui Chin, the daughter-in-law, loses a lucrative contract, gets cancer and disappears, leaving her husband and daughter to fend for themselves and so on, and so forth (spoiler alert). I hinted at this earlier in the review, but in such an avalanche of bad events, many of which border on clichés, these tragedies lose their impact. At the same time, I guess Sheng Keyi wants to send a clear message: you can’t win. Regardless of how hard the characters in Wild Fruit try, invisible authorities (read: the Communist Party), unfortunate coincidences or other people bar the characters from achieving some sense of normality or stability in their lives. At this point, the surviving characters return to the house in the countryside where they grew up, sitting around the fire, with a grandfather close to one hundred asking where “Huahua and Caocao” are.
As tragic as the events in the last part of the novel are, they are nevertheless framed within the larger context of the city, where there are limits to expression, where people with “connections” can facilitate or hinder development and where one’s sense of self-worth is tied to one’s financial capabilities. The family’s urban adventures can best be summarised by the following: “When they were in Yiyang, Yhua felt they were the crocodiles, but now that they had come out, she felt they were just geckos.” The squabbles of the family in the village, the tyrannical grandfather, all seem insignificant when thrown into the larger context of the city (a matter of life and death in fact). And yet, the cause of some things happening the way they do is due to the family relations. There are no happy characters in Wild Fruit; each of them is at the mercy of an invisible force (the author’s?) which enjoys seeing them suffer and fail.
Dragoș Ilca was born and raised in Romania. He studied literature in Amsterdam and Hong Kong. He taught creative writing and literature at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, among other places. His debut novel HK Hollow is available now.