Top positive review
A Love Song to China
on 21 February 2018
Alice Mannegan has come to China seeking a new identity. Her mother died at her birth, and her father is a racist American politician who used her as a pawn in one of his loathsome segregation speeches when she was small, something from which she's never quite recovered. She became captivated by China as a student, became fluent in Mandarin and has lived in the country, largely in Beijing, for several years, working for a pittance as an interpreter (she does get an allowance from her father as well). By night, she roams the bars of China seeking the perfect Chinese man - but with no real success. Until, that is, a job working for an American archaeologist who is determined to find the skeleton of 'Peking Man' discovered by the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard du Chardin, puts her in contact with a Chinese academic called Lin Shiyang, who accompanies them into the Mongolian wilderness on their expedition. Lin Shiyang has other reasons for being there along with his work - he's hoping to find out what happened to his wife, sent years before for 're-education' in a labour camp near where Alice and the archaeologist Adam are heading. But he soon realizes that, great though his need is to find out what happened to his wife, he's also very attracted to Alice, or 'Mo Ai Li' as she calls herself in China. Alice, meanwhile, begins to suspect that this is the man that she's needed for so long - the man who will allow her to truly participate in Chinese culture, and shrug off her American past. But can she ever do this? And will the father who has already ruined one relationship with a Chinese academic for her strike down this one too?
I'm inclined to give this book four stars simply because of the abundance of good material on China, the superb descriptions of the landscape, the food and the hectic pace of life in Beijing, and the fascinating bits of historical information (such as the story of Lin Shiyang's wife, banished to a labour camp for being a woman of integrity). Alice's strenuous attempts to 'become Chinese' - even to following ancient traditions such as ancestor-worship - were poignant and easy to sympathize with, and the historical story of Teilhard du Chardin and his platonic affair with an American artist called Lucille Swan very engrossing - and it was interesting how Mones drew parallels between that story and Alice's own. Lin Shiyang was also a very well-created hero, attractive without being idealized. I finished the book with a much greater interest in China and its culture and history, and wanting to know more about Teilhard du Chardin and Lucille Swan - proof of a good book, I guess.
But - there was one big problem for me, and that was the character of Alice, who seemed unbelievably naive in certain regards, and with improbably little self-knowledge. Her relationship with her father Horace was not particularly well realized, I felt - Alice seemed to veer between a rather sentimental 'Daddy's the only person I have' devotion and an equally simplistic repulsion which to me didn't quite make sense. If she was still so horrified by her father's right-wing politics and racism, then why did she continue to take a generous allowance from him? And why did she let him ruin her first engagement, to a man who seemed kind, her intellectual equal and genuinely devoted to her? There was an implication that it was to do with needing to keep her allowance which sounded rather sordid. Perhaps the problem was that Horace Mannegan was a poorly created character in comparison to the Chinese ones - he appeared to be a repellent blend of ruthlessness and sentimentality from which one would have felt most young women would have recoiled, Mones never explained anything about how he'd picked up and maintained such unpleasant racist views, and his illness (I think Mones possibly picked the wrong kind of cancer for this, as did Lionel Shriver with the snooker player in 'The Post-Birthday World') too convenient. I also felt that Alice had a rather sentimental view of China in the end - she never seemed to really address in her own mind either the problems of the Communist regime either under Mao or later, and I found it unbelievable that she didn't realize that her attempts to seemingly sleep with half of China were just another sort of colonialization. In the end, I wanted to shake her for not coming to terms with her past and for refusing to admit that she couldn't be Daddy's devoted little girl and remake herself as a Chinese woman. The ending only offered a limited hope, too, that she might be able to grow up. In the end, I found myself far more interested in the stories of Lin Shiyang and his wife and of Lucille and Teilhard du Chardin than in Alice's post-adolescent angst. And the other American male character, Adam, remained curiously unformed as a character.
Not an altogether satisfactory read then, and with a heroine who, despite some likeable episodes, can be decidedly irritating. Still, I was glad to read it, and at best it was superb - certainly an impressive debut, and one that's made me want to read more about China.