Saturday, August 24, 2013

Review : Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo

(Original review posted on Goodreads:- March 9, 2013) 

Sometimes I get this nagging suspicion that there's a greater conspiracy at work to make women writers all over the world feel unloved and unappreciated.
*cough* V.S. Naipaul *cough*

There's a deliberateness in the way most fiction authored by women is either labelled 'chick lit' and dismissed right away without a second thought or made light of under various other excuses.

Why else would this book have an average rating below 3.5 on Goodreads?

Let me offer you a word of advice. Don't go by the beautiful cover, it is highly deceptive.
Neither is Xiaolu Guo's protagonist half as slender or as pretty the girl on it nor is this book about a girl navigating her way through the world of dating and singles and finding her 'one true love' who sees her 'inner beauty'.

Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth brings into focus the position of women in a country rapidly elevating itself to a position of profound importance in the global arena but curiously enough, lacking conspicuously in the human rights department.
It explores themes of isolation, urban boredom, the sheer tragedy of everyday life, personal freedom and the deep disconnect between an increasingly authoritative Communist regime and disillusioned citizens, in a quintessentially nonchalant manner.

Xiaolu Guo's heroine Fenfang speaks in a slangy Chinese, swears often and has extremely messy living habits. She is strangely apathetic to the happenings in her own life and has the rare ability of analyzing most aspects of it with a matter-of-factness that is as scary as it is unique.
After having quit the disturbingly monotonous life in the countryside where her parents are but humble farmers with little variety in their daily routines, a starry-eyed Fenfang comes to Beijing with dreams of becoming a film actress or a script-writer. But quickly she discovers, the city is not all that it is hyped up to be. Directors aren't interested in casting her as the lead, script-writers and producers won't even read stories 'written by a woman' let alone accepting them as scripts for tv shows. And the old-fashioned folks of her neighborhood who take pride in sporting red Communist armbands to boot, are disapproving of the smartly dressed, independent, young female who has the audacity to bring a man home at night.
Refusing to lose heart, Fenfang starts working as extras on film and tv drama sets and slowly but surely begins carving out a niche for herself. She makes peace with stalkers, violent, physically absent, insensitive boyfriends, the cockroaches in her apartment and even the police who arrest her just to deliver a lecture on ideal behavior expected of an 'unmarried woman' and the unreasonableness of a woman being too 'individualistic'.
But even in the midst of these bleakest of surroundings, she finds an answer to the eternally baffling question of what true freedom really means.

This book has tried to lay Beijing bare - reveal the ugly side of a city which still insists upon practising blatant sexism and vigilantly guarding obsolete ideals in the 21st century, while maintaining the facade of rapid infrastructural development.
And it has helped me come to the realization that it is indeed possible to merge pertinent socio-political issues seamlessly with an otherwise ordinary story of an ordinary girl.

Neither has Xiaolu Guo tried to present this book as highbrow literature nor has she made the effort to write long, verbose sentences replete with symbolism or imagery. Instead she has directed her energies at highlighting the predicament of the young, modern woman all over the world and especially in a country like China, where the so-called 'weaker sex' is still not in the driver's seat. And for me, this is an achievement she deserves praise for.

A 3.5 stars rounded off to a willing, impressed 4 stars.

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