Seven stories, seven whispers into the ears of life: A Yi’s unexpected twists of crime burst from the everyday, with glimpses of romance distorted by the weaknesses of human motive. A Yi employs his forensic skills to offer a series of portraits of modern life, both uniquely Chinese, and universal in their themes. His years as a police officer serve him well as he teases the truth from simple observation, now brought into the English language in a masterful translation by Alex Woodend.
Hi and welcome to my stop on the blog tour for Two Lives! As always, huge thanks to Anne Cater for the invite and to Flame Tree Press for the gorgeous review copy!
If you’re a regular here you’ll know that I rediscovered short stories last year and promptly fell in love with them. You’ll also know that I’m rather hard to please when it comes to short stories, bar one or two exceptions, short story collections and anthologies usually leave me with mixed feelings, in one collection there are usually some stories that I love, and others that I don’t like (as much). Two Lives is no exception, but overall I did enjoy this collection and if you’re into short stories and/or you’re a fan of all things Chinese, do allow me to tell you a little more about it.
This short story collection is unlike anything I’ve ever read, and not to toot my own horn or whatever, but I have read an awful lot 😄 I won’t beat about the bush: this collection will not be for everyone. The writing style is succinct, dry, distant, and that doesn’t always work for me, but it did here. Usually when there is this much distance between the narrator and the characters, when the narrative is more observational than emotional, I don’t feel drawn to the characters and I’m not sucked into the story, but somehow Two Lives had the opposite effect.
From the ups and downs of Lington’s life in Two Lives and the secrets that are ruining Zhu Dan in Attic, from the exploits of Spring in Spring to the mysterious disappearance of Ba Like in Bach, from Zhaoyu who would give his life for love in Human Scum to mean Grandma Zhang in Fat Duck and Mr Fish with the ledger in his head in Predator, they all got under my skin and into my head in one way or another.
Human Scum is easily my favourite tale. It reminded me of those drawings where you can see two versions of the same thing or those 3D optical illusions, you can take Human Scum at its literal word, or you can read it as a kind of parable.
I don’t speak, write or read Chinese so I can’t be sure, but I’m convinced that Alex Woodend did an outstanding job with the translation of Two Lives. Although written in perfect English, it is done in such a way that the original Chinese is still somehow tangible. I appreciated that, although it did make for slower reading.
I do believe this is the first translated Chinese book that I’ve ever read, it was a bit of a leap into the unknown, and the fact that it’s a short story collection made the risk even bigger, like I said: I tend to end up with mixed feelings towards the collection in hand. But what can I say, the blurb and that bird on the cover piqued my interest and before I knew it I had signed up for this tour. I’m happy that I took that leap, though. Two Lives has broadened my horizons and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for more of A Yi’s work, and translated Chinese literature in general. Recommended to open-minded short story lovers who are willing to jump into the unknown and the peculiar!