December 17, 2012 by markstani
Northern Girls by Sheng Keyi
Qian Xiaohong is the kind of character who comes along all too rarely in modern fiction: a strong-willed siren who explicitly rejects the role society has pre-determined for her, who will brazenly use what she has to get what she wants, yet who retains a heart so winsome you positively yearn for her success. In short, a character for whom you will pine long after the final page.
Xiaohong is the heroine of Sheng Keyi’s debut novel (published in Mandarin in 2004), and her first to be translated into English, Northern Girls (pub. Penguin China). The teenage Xiaohong and her friend, Sijiang, leave their village in distant Hunan and set out for the economic centre of Shenzen. It is a journey undertaken by thousands of rural girls each year, lured by the prospect of making more of their lives: for Xiaohong, the very public exposure of her affair with her brother-in-law has hardly left her a choice in the matter.
From the opening lines, it’s clear what kind of girl, and indeed what kind of novel, we’re going to be dealing with:
Her. Right there. That’s Qian Xiahong, from Hunan province.
A little over a metre and a half tall, sporting short black hair with just a hint of a curl, her round-faced look is pretty much that of a novel citizen, good and decent. She’s just the sort of girl a guy wouldn’t mind taking home to meet his parents. However, her breasts – through no fault of her own – are much too large for civilised, polite society. Such breasts could not help but invite the same suspicion and groundless gossip normally saved for young widows.
Xiaohong’s breasts loom, er, large throughout this energetic novel, as she and the less confident Sijiang flit through a succession of menial jobs mainly earned by Xiaohong’s willingness to flaunt her figure. But the same qualities that help her along also frequently threaten to prove her undoing. There is an all-pervading assumption in this utterly soulless and corrupt world of low-level State service that girls like Xiaohong are only good for one thing, and will willingly give it out to get ahead. The succession of miserable men she encounters are left flabbergasted by her front: for the most part, she engages in trysts of choice and emerges empowered.
There are a couple of riotously funny set-pieces: in one, she literally strips bare the intentions of one party official; in another, ordered by police investigating a robbery to account for every moment of her previous night’s activities, she proceeds to present a colourful minute-by-minute account of her night of passion with a boyfriend, causing the attending officers no end of embarrassment, and at the climax of which the dead-eyed police secretary, without missing a beat, retorts: ‘Ah Sir, I’ve calculated. There are twenty extra minutes.’
Such scathingly on-the-button assessments of the suffocating bureaucracy of the State scatter this debut novel, and yet in many respects it is the almost wilful naivety, the simplicity, of Sheng’s work that makes her message so focused, painting a damning portrait of the creep of low-level Chinese capitalism – its everyday drudgery and accepted culture of exploitation.
Because make no mistake, this is no foot-stomping tale of girl-done-good triumph. At times, even Xiaohong finds herself the victim of circumstances beyond her control: there is rape and violence, helplessness at a system which precludes girls like her from getting ahead, and a succession of thoroughly risible male characters, even the most promising of whom eventually leave shattered dreams in their wake.
In a clever plot development, Xiaohong gets a job in the public relations department of a State hospital, allowing the novel to develop its underlying theme of physical exploitation. The genuinely shocking programmes of State sterilization are exposed to devastating effect, while ultimately, Xiaohong’s breasts prove as much of a burden as they have been a battering ram to push through innumerable societal ceilings.
You can only applaud a translation by Shelly Bryant which ensures Sheng’s original work loses none of its impact. Rugged and blunt just like its central character, it captures the essence of two country girls, who often speak in a dialect that instantly betrays their rural roots, struggling to make their way in the big city.
In her afterword, Sheng describes the process of creating the character of Xiaohong as ‘a true joy’. I can’t think of a better way to sum up the experience of reading about her. At risk of going over the top with the gushing, finishing the final page is the literary equivalent of having your teenage sweetheart call up to tell you it’s over. I don’t know how I’m going to cope without her…
Great minds obviously think alike: here’s my fellow ‘Shadow’ juror Matt’s review
I should add that this book is yet to sell UK rights. It is available via China or Australia, and also appears to be available on Kindle here. I need to thank Abi Howell at Penguin China, and Eric Abrahamsen at the excellent Chinese-literature-in-translation site Paper Republic, for their help in obtaining a copy.