Sky Burial – Xinran

This is one of those books that is only on my shelves because it completes a set, in this case the twenty six volumes of Penguin Drop Caps which I have covered as a series right back at the beginning of this blog in early 2018. This does mean that I came to read the book with no preconceptions at all knowing nothing about either it or the author and I have really enjoyed it. Having said that I have a suspicion that Xinran made it into this collection more due to her name beginning with X than for the literary merit of the book. This could be the fault of the translators from the original Chinese, Julia Lovell and Esther Tydesley, as the style is rather flat which considering the subject matter seems odd but as I cannot read the original I have no way of knowing if that is better. I don’t know why Xinran didn’t make the translation as she has lived and worked as a journalist and writer in London since 1997 and this translation was first published in 2004 so presumably she would be more than capable of producing an English version herself.

The conceit of the book is that it is based on the real life story of a Chinese doctor Shu Wen who in 1958 who in 1958 at the height of the Tibetan-Chinese conflict went to Tibet to try to find out what happened to her husband who was a military doctor and ends up stranded there for over thirty years living with the nomads and travelling from camp to camp. According to the introduction Xinran met Shu Wen in Suzhou and talked to her over a period of a couple of days whilst she related her story, Shu Wen then suddenly checked out of her hotel and disappeared. Wikipedia appears to have fallen for this and describes the book as a biography but it is clearly listed as a work of fiction on the publication data page and frankly the idea that an intelligent woman would make no attempt to either continue her search or head back to China and would stay with the nomadic family for three decades is desperately unlikely. The resolution of the novel also stretches credulity to breaking point as a real life case with too many unresolved plot points being sorted out in a relatively short space of time compared to the vast amount of time with no movement on them at all.

Treating it as the novel that it is becomes far more rewarding than looking at it as a dubious biography, the book is 220 pages long in this imprint and I read it at one sitting as you do get drawn into the story. The depiction of Tibetan nomadic life is fascinating and it appears that Xinran did a significant amount of research, so you slowly learn, along with Wen, how the dynamics of family life operate. The book also largely avoids discussing the Chinese takeover of Tibet which has existed since the 1950’s, this is done by completely ignoring the subject by putting Shu Wen away from all contact with other Chinese people and any news of the world outside of the nomadic family she is with for a couple of decades. The exception is at the start where the conflict is acknowledged because that is why Shu Wen’s husband, Kejun, was in Tibet in the first place and also the description of Wen’s journey into Tibet having enlisted in the military and the surprise that her fellow soldiers have that they were not being welcomed with open arms as liberators from the rule of the Dalai Lama. This is where another extremely unlikely event occurs as Wen discusses with a senior officer and gets agreement from him to desert her unit in her search for Kejun. In a novel this is fine, strange things happen in novels, but in real life deserting the Chinese army at the time would have been punished severely.

I have deliberately not written much about the time Wen spends with the nomadic family or how the various issues are resolved as this is the real meat of the novel and any coverage would just be spoilers. Suffice to say that even though there is much that is not as good as it could be the book is a pleasant way of spending a rainy afternoon, just sit back, suspend belief a little, and go with the flow.

An Old Man’s Love – Anthony Trollope

Twenty years or so ago I collected all forty seven novels plus the autobiography of Anthony Trollope in the lovely edition printed by the Folio Society which was the first ever complete edition to be illustrated. These are now long out of print but can still be obtained easily on the second hand market. I admit to having bought them far faster than I have ended up reading them in order to complete the set at the time. I have now read over half but have decided for the purpose of this blog to tackle his final work of fiction, completed before he died in 1882. He was still working on The Landleaguers which was published as an unfinished work in 1893 oddly before An Old Man’s Love which didn’t actually get published until 1894. Both of these are amongst his less well known works, indeed I cannot find an edition of An Old Man’s Love currently in print. Trollope suffered a decline in popularity towards the end of his life and it took sixty or seventy years before his reputation as a great Victorian novelist was restored but even so only about half of his novels are read to any extent today.

20190611 An Old Man's Love

The vast majority of An Old Man’s Love is written as as you would expect although there are passages where the author is talking directly to the reader and Trollope can get quite chatty as in the opening paragraph to the third chapter when we are properly introduced to The Old Man’s love interest.

There is nothing more difficult in the writing of a story than to describe adequately the person of a hero or a heroine, so as to place before the mind of the reader any clear picture of him or her who is described. A courtship is harder still—so hard that we may say generally that it is impossible. Southey’s Lodore is supposed to have been effective; but let any one with the words in his memory stand beside the waterfall and say whether it is such as the words have painted it. It rushes and it foams, as described by the poet, much more violently than does the real water; and so does everything described, unless in the hands of a wonderful master. But I have clear images on my brain of the characters of the persons introduced. I know with fair accuracy what was intended by the character as given of Amelia Booth, of Clarissa, of Di Vernon, and of Maggie Tulliver. But as their persons have not been drawn with the pencil for me by the artists who themselves created them, I have no conception how they looked. Of Thackeray’s Beatrix I have a vivid idea, because she was drawn for him by an artist under his own eye. I have now to describe Mary Lawrie, but have no artist who will take the trouble to learn my thoughts and to reproduce them. Consequently I fear that no true idea of the young lady can be conveyed to the reader; and that I must leave him to entertain such a notion of her carriage and demeanour as must come to him at the end from the reading of the whole book.

But the attempt must be made, if only for fashion sake, so that no adventitious help may be wanting to him, or more probably to her, who may care to form for herself a personification of Mary Lawrie.

And so he continues to give a basic description of the young lady who finds herself an orphan and is taken in to the home of Mr Whittlestaff, initially as an act of kindness because he was a friend of the family and she had nowhere else to go. At the start of the book Mr Whittlestaff is fifty and Miss Lawrie is twenty five although we quickly leap about a year and a half to two years so that she is well settled in the house and Mr Whittlestaff decides to ask her to marry him. Now this she is willing to do, although in truth she loves another, a certain John Gordon who vanished from her life three years earlier without actually declaring his love for her but promising to one day return. Then, on the very day that she agrees to her engagement to William Whittlestaff, John Gordon does come back and arrives at Croker’s Hall intending now that he has made money in South Africa to ask her to marry him.

All this has occurred in the first forty or so pages of the book and so the stage is set for the rivalry between the two men for the hand of Miss Mary Lawrie which is to be played out in the grounds of Victorian manners. Some of the characters favour her becoming Mrs Whittlestaff and yet more favour Mrs Gordon and none are shy about coming forward with their opinion even in front of the three main characters. There are numerous twists and turns before the final conclusion and there is also a sub-plot concerning the housekeeper at Croker’s Hall and her drunken husband which also needs to be resolved in the 172 pages so there is a lot going on considering the relative shortness of this book in the grand scheme of Victorian novels.

Romance is not normally a genre that I would choose to read but I definitely enjoyed this story and whilst Trollope is clearly not at the height of his powers as he was in The Chronicles of Barchester books or the Palliser series, both of which consist of six novels each, it is well written and draws you into the tale of the love triangle.