As the title suggests, Ruiyan Xu's debut novel uses the differences in Chinese and English language to explore the disparity in thinking and expression between people of different cultures, but it also considers language in a wider context as the principal means by which we communicate and form close relationships with others, as well as create a the gulf when expression and meaning are out of step. In some respects, The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai follows similar ground covered in Rachel DeWoskin's Chinese-English cross-cultural experiences in Foreign Babes in Beijing
and Repeat After Me
, but while there are some important differences, there are also, unfortunately, similar weaknesses.
The crucial difference between Xu and DeWoskin is that the perspective is reversed from the American to the Chinese viewpoint. Whereas De Woskin would however use teaching and English-language courses as a means to explicitly bring out the differences in language and meaning, Xu finds a more imaginative way to explore the subject through a rare condition known as bilingual aphasia. This condition affects Li Jing, a Chinese businessman who spent his childhood in America, who finds that he can no longer speak Chinese after minor brain damage sustained in a gas explosion at a restaurant. Dr. Rosalyn Neal, a specialist in neurological disorders, travels from America, partly to examine this rare case, but also using the trip as an opportunity to escape from a recent marriage break-up.
The idea is a fine one - both the patient and the doctor feel isolated within themselves on account of language and personal issues, and both need to find a way to reintegrate into a society where they don't feel entirely comfortable and suffer from a lack of understanding other people - but, yes, it's a kind of Lost in Translation idea, and, yes, it's more interested in relationships than in demonstrating any deeper cultural significance in the expressions and meaning of language. Even on the relationship front, it's not entirely successful, and it's hard to entirely sympathise with the predicament of any of the main characters. Worse, they aren't even credible, neither in their professional lives nor in the roles they later assume, whether it be on a personal or inter-personal level.
If the author fails to make the characters real, or make them sympathetic to the reader, The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai does at least have a good slow-burning quality, manoeuvring towards a tense and somewhat dramatic conclusion, but ultimately without convincing that there's any depth beneath the melodramatic, romantic soap-operatics.