Arduous enough in a free country, the path to adulthood in Maoist China is exceptionally rocky. Lian Yang, the narrator of Wang's richly detailed if uneven first novel, is 12 years old when her mother, Yunxiang, a lecturer at the Teacher's University of Beijing, is ordered to a ""re-education camp."" Lian, whose doctor father has earlier been exiled to the Gansu desert, develops a psychosomatic illness: vitiligo, or white blotches on her skin. Since Lian's illness doesn't exempt Yunxiang from her sentence, and she can't get permission to stay home to care for her daughter, the girl is allowed to accompany her mother to the camp. As the only child in those grim surroundings, Lian quickly becomes the prot g of exiled professors, who illegally tutor her. Inspired by the lessons of her history teachers, she works out her impressions of Communist and pre-Communist China by giving clandestine lectures to the plants and frogs in a pond that she dubs the Lily Theatre. Meanwhile, she learns to guard her inner life--not only her political opinions but even such ""capitalistic cravings"" as hunger and thirst--from spies and interrogators who are constantly on the lookout for ideological deviation. This discipline stands her in good stead when, at the end of her mother's sentence, Lian resumes both her formal education and an unlikely friendship that ends in tragedy when Lian is 15. Originally written in Dutch when the author was still mastering the language, the novel is often strained and awkward in its use of colloquialisms, clich s and conflicting prose styles. Although Wang revised this edition, her attempts to capture a teenage voice can be disconcerting. Nevertheless, she brings the coarse and brutal world of Maoist China to vivid life. In a land where a pet dog must be sacrificed when a meat dinner is required for Party functionaries, the ordinary is turned upside down, and even the smallest acts take on an uncanny significance. Rights sold in England, Austria, Germany, Finland, Norway, Brazil, Sweden, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Japan, France, Greece and Spain. (Sept.) FYI: The Dutch version of this novel won the Nonino International Prize for Literature in 1999.