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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
A book of three voices: dissident Mongolian- Chinese musician Jian, his poet girlfriend Mu, and their Scottish translator Iona. Mu and Jian's disjointed story is told through diary entries, letters, newspaper clippings and Iona's research, as the translator becomes obsessed with her subjects, and their tragic tale emerges through her translations.
Maybe it is because Xiaolu Guo is writing about her native land - thinking in Chinese, mentally translating - that the language of the story often feels so stilted and so odd. At times - especially in the early chapters - I felt I was reading a poor translation: it reminded me of English translations of Chinese books one found in bookshops in Cuba, in the days before it all changed there, when everything was on the ration and you could still pick such books out of the trash. I lived in Cuba, immersed amongst the Cubans, for many years: the political culture of this novel - though harsher by far than anything I experienced, directly or by proxy - was familiar to me, I knew where Jian and Mu were coming from, though their political life and exile is only part of the tale, and to me, the least fascinating. The best of this novel is a simple mystery: Iona's search for Mu and Jian - an assemblage of clues that make up the disparate tales of two strangers and a cursed relationship, discovered in a pile of photocopied sheets, some letters and a diary, thrust into the hands of a publisher visiting China.
I Am China should be, and often is, a fascinating tale, but there's something profoundly lacking here: a coldness, a lack of heart. It is a very slow burn; it took me a long time to get into the story. Eventually it becomes a quietly fascinating tale; there are no twists or sudden surprises. Iona's search for Mu and Jian's story only began to really grip me once they became separated, left China and were forced to engage with their new worlds, but even then, Mu and Jian remained characters to me: I never truly engaged with them, or their translator; nothing about the ending shocked me because I never warmed to any of them. Jian was the firmer, more solid character for me; the most fascinating; the only one with something real to say. Mu seemed to waft though the book like a breeze; amorphous; colourless; still occasionally interesting. Iona was by far the weakest; her story makes up a full third of the tale and I never really understood her at all. The lurid details of her icy, promiscuous, disengaged life seemed intended merely as a foil for Mu and Jian's warmth and passion; maybe she was just another sly dig at 'miserable cold England'; the food, the weather, the people - this book is full of that. The whole British experience - for Iona, as much as Jian - seems very negative. One can't help but wonder if this reflects Xiaolu Guo's actual feelings about her adopted homeland? She doesn't much seem to like it here, which makes one wonder why she has chosen to stay.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Iona Kirkpatrick is presented with a disorganised collection - all in Chinese - of diaries, letters and other material written by a Chinese rock musician Kublai Jian and his girlfriend Deng Mu. The book publisher suspects a powerful story is buried in these manuscripts: can Iona both translate and makes sense of the material?

Jian, as he attempted to distribute his manifesto at a rock concert, inevitably fell foul of the state police and quickly found himself, as a displaced person, moving between various detention centres in Europe. Although Mu could never wholly understand Jian's philosophy she attempts, in increasingly desperate letters, to trace and contact him. And, as Jian attempts to contact her, his letters and diary entries are a powerful expression of uncertainty about his future plus an unshakable conviction about the importance of that original manifesto.

As Iona organises and translates the material she becomes increasingly determined to understand the background to their romance and the reason behind their enforced separation - and, if possible, locate both Jian and Mu.

`I am China' is an evocative and gripping story of the enigma that is today's China: a story of near-fragile love and the impact of a faceless political system on the lives of two young people.

Thoroughly recommended.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 5 June 2014
As well as giving the reader an imaginative insight into the person and workings of the translator, a figure quite often forgotten or rendered ‘invisible’ in the creative process, Xiaolu Guo's latest novel is a powerful love story and relates a strong sense of the conflicted, yet principled, identities of the two young Chinese protagonists in the story. I like the structural symmetry: the stasis (for Jian) in the various asylum and detention centres he is forced to occupy in contrast to Mu’s mobility (road-trip round the US); and how their personal journeys are set against larger social and political concerns. I also like the sense of urgency that comes through translator Iona’s desire to piece the story together and the way she is forced to think about her own situation through her connection with the fragments she translates and brings to life. The passages on translation and untranslatability are thought-provoking (pp.214-16) and the way in which Jian seems to become ‘unmoored’ is heart-rending.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This novel, Xiaolu Guo's fifth, is both important and interesting in terms of subject-matter, but for me, did not really work as a piece of storytelling. Iona Kirkpatrick is a rootless translator in London, who has been rather randomly assigned a collection of Chinese letters to translate (the editor who gave them to her admits himself that he has no idea what they are or what he means to do with them, and this plot device feels a little contrived). The correspondence she is translating is a series of exchanges between two lovers, Jian and Mu; Jian is now in a detention centre at Dover for illegal immigrants, waiting to find out what will happen to him, while Mu, in Bejing, is desperately trying to track him down. As Iona translates the letters, the narrative jumps from point to point in the trajectory of Jian and Mu's relationship, and the reader is left to piece the sequence of events together.

The two earlier novels by Guo that I have read, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers and 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, were enjoyable, but slight, and felt superficially very similar, both narrated by a young and vulnerable Chinese woman. I Am China is a very different enterprise; much more ambitious, and much more structurally complex. For me, it was hampered rather than helped by its structure. The sequence of very brief chapters made it difficult to become completely immersed in the world of the letters, or Jian's present-day experiences, or Iona's isolation, before we're jerked away to focus on something else. A more serious flaw, for me, were the sections that focused on Iona. She never really comes to life as a character in her own right, so the time we spend with her feels a little pointless, a way to demonstrate that she isn't the plot device that she seems, and Guo dwells on a series of endlessly dull details, from predictable email exchanges to endless repetitions of Iona getting up, going for a walk, observing London or looking up things in books. The Jian/Mu story is much stronger in comparison, especially in its depiction of life in modern China, which I found fascinating, but it is difficult for it to really get going when it's constantly being dragged to a halt by Iona.

In many ways I Am China is a worthwhile read, especially if, like me, you know little of China's more recent history. Nevertheless, its structural flaws made it difficult for me to enjoy.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 17 September 2014
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
A translator living in the Angel, London (just down from Amnesty International) is given a folder of Chinese documents to translate. Essentially the love story of Jian and Mu: two young people from China, Iona Kirkpatrick becomes quite involved with the characters and their story through the translation process.

My own knowlege of the history of China is flimsy so this was quite an eye-opener for me. I remembered Tananmen square and Sinead's song from 25 years ago but I was ignorant about the Jasmine revolution and the relatively recent level of state control.

Ultimately though I felt the educational aspect of the novel was in conflict with the story and even dictated it. The characterisation also felt a little clunky. For example, I didn't understand the justification for Iona having annonymous sex (ie: that she is a true romantic). It seems to be there to spice the story up.

Another aspect I found conflictual to a really successful novel was Xiaolu's poeticism. Poetic descriptions of environment and people don't seem to add towards the narrative thrust, or make the story more exciting.

Overall then, it was a mixed experience reading this, although I did enjoy certain aspects of it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 18 April 2015
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is a fascinating look at China's recent history as the protagonist, Iona, a translator, unravels love letters and diaries. It opens up China to Iona in a way her languages degree which included a semester in the country never did. She comes to a better understanding of the culture and politics of the country whose language she studied so closely and, through her, so does the reader. Piecing together the story of the lovers also forces Iona to look again at love and what it means and ultimately to open herself up to it.

I Am China also gave this reader some insight into the work of a translator and how they inhabit the stories which they translate, and wrangle not only the sense of each sentence but what the original writer intended to convey by it.

A really interesting novel and one which makes me want to read more by this author and find out more about the country, its people and their culture and politics.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 17 December 2014
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I found this book quite difficult to read, really. It began very well, but after a few chapters it seemed to tail off. There are three main characters in the book, none of which are particularly appealing or engaging. None of them seem to particularly care about each other, or the things that happen. They say that they do in the text, but it really doesn't come over this way. Bad things happen, but the author does not manage to convey much emotion. Several times it is mentioned how excited the translator of Mu and Jian's letters and diaries is becoming as she uncovers their story, but she really doesn't seem to have much enthusiasm. Occasionally, Jian's character seems to flare up briefly, while Mu never really stands out. I really didn't like Iona - she seemed quite unsettling, and made me feel uncomfortable. This is a shame, because it is a dramatic story, and could have been a great book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 9 February 2015
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Nearly missed this excellent and moving novel about a series of letters and diaries, all bundled together, that come into the hands of a Scottish lady named Iona Fitzpatrick. She begins translating them from the original Chinese; they tell the story of a Chinese rock musician who's in England somewhere, and his girlfriend who lives in Beijing. She only knows that he is somewhere in England, the two having become separated by an event involving intervention by the Chinese police.

In fact he's currently being held in a detention camp in Dover. Iona therefore becomes involved in a desperate quest to bring the two lovers together again.

If in synopsis, it sounds like a 'woman's' novel let me reassure all thriller-reading gentlemen that it's not. It's for anyone who enjoys an emotion filled tale of love, loss and reconciliation.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 31 January 2015
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I'd no idea what to expect of this book. I chose it as I've just booked a holiday to China and it caught my eye. The cover is also striking but "you can't judge a book......." and all that.
Iona, a translator, discovers a story of two lovers, who have been speperated. She then gets involved and tries to get them back together.
The novel reads in an oddly dispassionate way, odd because it is about such passionate and emotional issues - freedom and love.
It is an interesting read as there is plenty in here I didn't know but I'm not sure this was the best way for me to find out more.
Not my favourite book.
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Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Main protagonists are a Chinese musician Kublai Jian, his poet girlfriend Deng Mu, and Iona Kirkpatrick from The Isle of Mull. Iona has been given a job by a British publisher to translate letters and diaries of Jian and Mu to gauge whether there is a story to be told - which there is as ‘I Am China’ reveals. Initially it appears documentation is all mixed up but Iona perseveres - as did author Xiaolu Guo who has produced an intriguing and informative novel, with insights to Chinese culture, history and politics, plus the West’s treatment of refugees and the asylum system - to say nothing of punk rock!

Though narrative moves forwards and backwards, and after a brief ‘Prelude’ as a letter written by Jian to Mu in December 2011 the chapters are given headings indicating location and date. The ‘Prelude’ does not say where Jian and Mu are, but it sets the scene via involvement in Tiananmen Square in 1989 with Jian falling foul of artistic censorship, being parted from Mu, but hoping to be reunited. From then on Iona concentrates on translation to expose Jian’s exile for views expressed in his ‘manifesto’ and his passage through various detention centres in Britain and Europe, and Mu’s progress as a performance poet with a tour in America where she tussles with her identity.

Translated communications indicate to Iona how Jian and Mu move apart, and she feels intimately for them, but she never has the full story. Readers have the benefit of Xiaolu Guo’s third party commentaries in addition to dialogue for explaining revolutionary actions and resurrection hopes of both Jian and Mu, and as an indictment on Chinese politics the book is a human story of what has been lost. Its title stems from belief that China is its people and not the state. Background is provided on Jian’s and Mu’s families together with historical events in Communist China’s evolution, plus Iona’s own personal adventures which as lustful and loveless sex is somewhat at odds with her growing desires to bring Jian and Mu together. This detail adds little to the plot but it is reason for loss of a star. However as an excellent thought-provoking emotionally charged novel ‘I Am China’ is full of purposeful perseverance and poignancy.
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