Earlier this month I came across a new author, Ruiyan Xu, on GoodReads.com. I’m always on the lookout for new Chinese authors, so I entered the raffle for her debut novel, The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai (St. Martin’s, 2010).
Lucky me. I won an advance readers’ copy.
So this week I read Xu’s novel about a Shanghai business tycoon, Li Jing, who suffers brain damage in an accidental explosion at a posh Shanghai hotel. Li spent his first 10 years in the US, so spoke English as his first language. After his father took him back to Shanghai, Chinese replaced his main language and he rarely, if ever, spoke English.
After the accident, he loses his ability to speak–or re-learn–Chinese. But he rediscovers English, which had been hard-wired into his brain since it was his first acquired language. When Li’s wife Meiling discovers her husband can no longer communicate with her, she withdraws from him. Their young son, Pang Pang, speaks some English, as does James’ elderly father (who later suffers from a fatal heart attack). Li also has a translator, who helps him communicate with his Chinese doctors and his wife.
But the person who Li Jing gets along with best is his American neurologist, Rosalyn Neal. Over the weeks that Rosalyn spends working with Li, the two develop a close, touchy feely relationship. And then things spiral out of control.
Xu has a beautiful writing style and the descriptions of Shanghai seem to flow effortlessly. I wish she’d reflected more on Meiling’s aversion toward learning English. To me, that would seem the logical response, especially since everyone was studying English in Shanghai back in the late 90s. It’s not like it was Russian. Instead, Meiling retreats and I never really feel sorry for her because she seems to give up (although she dives head first into Li’s business and spends all her waking hours keeping it afloat.)
Rosalyn Neal’s character is three dimensional, but there’s a recklessness to her that I think Xu could have explored further. Sometimes she’s a serious medical professional, while at others she’s an aloof flirt. And in the end she seems heartless and flighty. I’m sure it’s possible to be all three, but if we knew more about Rosalyn’s hopes for the future, we’d understand her better.
But other than those two areas, The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai is sure to be a favorite autumn reading choice for people who are interested in cross cultural relationships, modern Chinese society, and the importance of language.