A young woman goes on a journey of self-discovery in this intimate, understated debut from Chinese author, An Yu.
Jia Jia lives in her Beijing apartment with her husband, Chen Hang, a successful businessman. It's more a marriage of convenience than love, and there are suggestions that not all his business dealings are above board. One morning Jia Jia walks into the bathroom of their apartment to find her husband in the bath, his head submerged. Nearby is a strange, enigmatic drawing he has made of a man with a fish's body, what comes to be called “the fish man”. Was it suicide, or accidental death? Maybe something more sinister?
Left alone in the world with a large, four-bedroom apartment, Jia Jia embarks on an uncertain new life, one of self re-creation. She strikes up a friendship with Leo, who runs a bar near her apartment, and takes on some freelance work as an artist. The idea then strikes her to take a trip to Tibet, replicating the exact journey her husband had taken before his untimely death.
In Tibet Jia Jia meets some new people who help her unlock the mystery of “the fish man”, the strange picture her husband had drawn before he died. In the process, new information is also revealed about her troubled mother, who died young.
Braised Pork is the first novel by 26-year-old An Yu. She was born and raised in Beijing, moved to New York as a teenager and now lives between Paris and Hong Kong. She writes her fiction in English. This is an engaging and elusive debut - elusive in a good way. The story is set out in clear and simple prose – it’s a dream to read – and is rich in ambience, describing city life and its feelings of isolation. As the story progresses, it becomes more evocative and contains many dream passages where Jia Jia falls into what is described as a “world of water” that is linked to “the fish man”. This world of water could be described as a state of being, almost a state of nothingness, that offers relief from Jia Jia's grief and depression. In the world of water, Jia Jia doesn't have to be anything, but can be happy to simply exist. It's a dark, yet meditative place.
Some readers may find Braised Pork too abstract and intangible. The more evocative dream sequences can leave you scratching your head as to what it all really means. But too much explanation could have tipped this sensitive and delicate story, with its strong vein of magic realism, into something more blunt and prosaic.
A highly enjoyable debut and an author to watch.
Release date 21st January, 2020
Braised Pork, by An Yu. Published by Harvill/Secker. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books