One day a dried eel arrives in the mail, at the Beijing apartment where Coral lives with her boyfriend Red. No explanation on the package. Just a giant eel wrapped in paper, filling up the fridge, and feeding the two twenty-somethings for weeks.
The eel comes from the Village of Stone, where Coral grew up. She now lives in the city with the frisbee-obsessed, jobless, someday-a-better-life-than-this dreamer Red, but the eel ignites Coral's memories of her childhood in a village depending on small-scale fishing off a rugged coast beneath steep mountains, which Coral describes this way:
"The sea was all the Village of Stone had, the only nature it possessed. The village was built on a peninsula with no rivers, lakes or farmland, just the craggy, desolate mountain behind it that sloped down to the sea. The inhabitants of the Village of Stone built their houses, row upon row of them, on the lower slopes of the mountain, so that all the streets were at a sharo incline. This was partly to protect the houses from the tide, but, more importantly, to prevent them from being swept away by the frequent typhoons". [p. 11-12].
The Village of Stone is one of those Somewhere On A Remote Coast villages. This is where Coral grew up, without parents, raised by her grandparents in an environment of absolute domestic hostility based on misunderstandings and overzealous pride. Coral tries to negotiate the stairs inside the house separating her grandmother and grandfather, who haven't spoken in years, and who will never reconcile. But ultimately Coral is faced with being just a small girl in a small village who is pushed around by life without being able to ever really push back.
Maybe that is why, looking back from urban life in her twenties, she remembers the fantastical and emphasizes the mythical sides of the Village of Stone. Her former home has now become an "out there", where the villagers lived in fear of pirates marauding through the seawashed streets, and where the neighboring family had nine girls in a row and kept asking for a boy, finally naming their latest girl Boy Waiting. This was a village more in the sea than by the sea, storm torn and wave battered. At least that is how Coral remembers it. Coral. The name of an often beautiful creature hiding beneath the surf.
Or maybe these memories act as a necessary screen fencing her off from the incidents that eventually shaped much of her current being?
Coral's story could be reduced to the teenager's struggle to survive and escape a confined home space. But in her case escape is not just from the mental prison of a seawe(e)d life, it is the actual escape from sexual abuse perpetrated by the village mute. It is escape from village scorn after an affair with the school teacher that got her pregnant and forced her to an abortion. It is, as another reviewer [...]has pointed out, also about the "contrast between the anomie of modern Chinese urban life, and the ancient but fast-vanishing traditional universe of the countryside".
City life for Coral is fundamentally different first of all because it is not village life. The move signifies not only personal change but also social change as it reflects the ongoing global march from rural to metropolitan life. However, Coral and Red struggle to get by, Red searches the city for a proper job, their apartment is run down, the toilet is constantly clogged, and the tone of daily life is not always in contrast to the tone of stories from the village.
China in this novel reminds me of grey skies and the sound of waves on rocks. But my world of references and my knowledge of China will not pay fair tribute to what Xiaolu has done with Village of Stone. With its legends, myths, and rain-soaked setting it is story that reminds me of William Heinesen's "The Lighthouse at the End of the World". But in the end it is just as much a moving story about reconciling with the past and moving on through life written in a simple, beautiful prose that calms the typhoons and keeps the pirates at bay.