Chinese novelist Mian Mian's American debut offers readers a vicarious journey to a place and time shrouded in mystery: gritty, underground China of the late 1980s through mid-1990s. The story begins in Shanghai, when a classmate's suicide prompts narrator Hong to drop out of high school. Fearing she'll never get a job without an education, Hong heads south to the Special Economic Zone, where the government has lifted restrictions so business can flourish. Among the most successful enterprises are nightclubs, gambling, drugs and prostitution. Hong falls in love with a musician and quickly succumbs to an endless nightlife of sex and drugs and all the problems that tend to accompany such fun. Mian doesn't shy away from the ugliness of this world—alcoholism, drug addiction and AIDS cases abound—but her perceptive, compassionate writing turns Hong's raw experiences into something beautiful. Hong's frequent self-analysis feels honest, unpretentious and believably adolescent; Mian never lets us forget that for all her grim, worldly experience, Hong is still touchingly young and exuberant: "My mood was like my lover's hair. Love, for me, was partly a mood, just like that ultradopey bullshit music that I sometimes liked to listen to. That kind of music made me jumpy, but when I felt tense, I felt happy." Though the prose is uneven, sometimes straining awkwardly for lyrical effect, readers will find Hong a compelling personality. (July 15)
Forecast:Like Wei Hui (Shanghai Baby, Atria, 2002), Mian is a cult figure in China, her novels banned by the government. The two novelists are embroiled in a feud—Mian has accused Wei of plagiarizing her—which might provide grist for off-the-book-page coverage in the U.S.
Release date: 07/01/2003