Oct/Nov 2016 Reviews & Interviews

A Chinese Affair

A Chinese Affair
Isabelle Li.
Margaret River Press. 2016. 340 pp.
ISBN 978 0 9943167 6 9.

Review by Ann Skea

"As if walking in a snowstorm, I look back to find my footsteps have been erased. I do not know where I am and can no longer find my way back."

Buy now from Amazon! So muses Crystal, a young woman who has left her Chinese homeland to live and work in Australia. She has left behind her family, her culture, her language and even her name, since it is too difficult for Australians to pronounce correctly. Instead, she chooses to call herself "Crystal"—"perfect in structure and form, hard and clear in every molecule."

Crystal is not hard. She feels the disorientation that every migrant feels, although those who move to a place where language and culture are similar to that of their birthplace may feel it less acutely.

We first meet Crystal when she is married to an older Australian man with a grown up family. He has "had the snip," but she is pregnant. How this came about is not stated, but a later story allows the reader to believe she may have had a loving liaison with a young Chinese artist who is about to move to America. Crystal's dilemma is how and when she should break the news to her husband, but this, frustratingly, is never resolved. Often in later stories, too, situations are developed, but the outcomes are not revealed. This can be frustrating, but the stories themselves are beautifully told.

There are 16 short stories in this book, and the venues range from China to Singapore, Australia, and a tropical island in the Philippines. Crystal turns up in a number of them, sometimes under her Chinese name, Xueqing, or at other times identifiable by her work as a translator. She is not always the focus or the narrator of the story, and at one point, this confused me when two consecutive stories, the first subtly linked to Crystal and the four previous stories, and both told in the first person, turned out as the second story progressed to be about two completely different children of different genders.

Other stories tell of Chinese relatives, of tragedies and love tangles, and of work experiences—including house-sitting in Australia and working as a translator at a conference. Without spelling things out, Li is expert at using telling details of situations and conversations to imply underlying tensions and cultural differences. She knows well what it is like to have, as one of the four sections of the book is titled, "Two tongues," and two very different perspectives of the world.

In "Blue Lotus," late in the book, we meet Crystal again when she describes a return visit to China and the growth and industrialisation of the village where her mother, father, and brother still live. She feels the changes others note in her, and she stands out as different with her new intolerance of noise and her Australian styled hair. In this industrial, polluted landscape, she thinks of the creative fantasies she weaves when Australians ask about her birthplace: "In spring the fruit trees blossom all at once... In summer, the willows burst against an azure sky like green fireworks... " And she writes of her Sydney flat in its beautiful setting. But neither that nor her Yoga practice can allay the well of sadness at the bottom of her heart. In Sydney, too, she is different, however hard she tries to fit in: "Looking at the fine food on the table, I wonder who I am, why I am here."

Isabelle Li, who grew up in China and has lived in Singapore and Australia, writes well, and many of these stories have been published before in literary magazines. She clearly knows and understands the feelings of her characters, and she writes sensitively of their loves, losses, failures, achievements, and resilience as they deal with the complexities of moving between cultures.

At one point Crystal tells her mother of her plan to write about their family history. Many of Li's stories seem to be a realization of a similar plan, dealing with the stories of relatives and describing fragments of their lives during vast political changes in China. Some stories, however, would not fit this pattern at all. One rather oddly out-of-place but very good story describes the feelings and experiences of a young woman and her partner as she undergoes IVF treatment.

My only real criticism of the book is the structure, which I found somewhat random and confusing. Overall, however, it is a most enjoyable read.


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