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Wang Gang, , trans. from the Chinese by Martin Merz and Jane Weizhen Pan. . Viking, $24.95 (313pp) ISBN 978-0-670-02059-1

For 12-year-old Love Liu, foreign languages are a way of life: he lives in gossipy Xinjiang in far northwest China, where the sounds of Uyghur, Russian and Chinese mingle. But when Second Prize Wang, a dashing English teacher from Shanghai, arrives at his school, Love Liu wonders what use it would be to learn English. However, he's enamored of the confident and cosmopolitan teacher. Love Liu dives into his studies and soon befriends Second Prize Wang, and their unconventional friendship becomes one of the only constants in Love Liu's world as the Cultural Revolution wears away at the people of Xinjiang. Love Liu's friends are smacked with accusations, his school gets closed down for months at a time and his parents are alternately lauded and condemned. The more quotidian aspects of the novel can be repetitive—Love Liu cycles endlessly through the same handful of teenage tribulations—but the novel's larger portrait of Love Liu and Second Prize Wang's friendship emerges with touching clarity and provides a perfect counterbalance to the corruption and confusion of the Cultural Revolution. (Apr.)