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4.1 out of 5 stars
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4.1 out of 5 stars
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on 29 April 2017
I enjoyed reading this book and quite early on found myself drawn into the lives of the characters of Mu and Jian. After finishing the book it haunted me for days and in fact I re-read the last few chapters not only because I didn't want to let go, but also because they are so poignant, and powerful and heart rending, and are some of the finest writing I have read for a long time. The story throughout is plausible and vividly told. It is a very graphic description of what happens when the individual comes up against the ruthless operation of power and it's contempt for individual liberty. It reveals the pull of home, and belonging and identity. It describes how we can become un-mooored when our lives change too quickly, or at fundamental levels which we can barely understand.
The book is an authentic narrative of the bond between two young people and their life together that is fractured in ways partly created by themselves, but also by the uncompromising harshness of life and living. Their growing apart happens gradually as certain tragedies occur. The story reveals itself slowly as their diaries and letters are translated, in a way that keeps your attention and draws you further into what feels like a living connection with the two main characters. There are passages in the book which will stop you in your tracks, where a mood is captured so vividly that it is like looking at a painting or photograph, which in turn then opens up into deep insights into the inner world of the characters. If you have any interest in China you will find the various levels of this story fascinating and revealing. As the book progresses into the second half of the story you begin to realise that you are reading an exceptional novel.
I found that the character of the translator Iona was not as easy to grasp or connect with, and fortunately this did not affect the overall experience of the story. Her life was lived in sharp and bleak contrast to that of Mu and Jian, and in hindsight appears to have been a deliberate attempt by the author to allow a very clear stage on which the other characters of Jian and Mu could be portrayed. I could not find any subliminal links between the two "worlds" in which the story evolves; perhaps others could, but to me they felt like two very separate stories. That said Guo's capacity to reveal the coldness and emptiness of Iona's life was very good, and towards the end of the book some revealing passages did help us to understand her a little better. This is a very good book and well worth reading. I will read more of her books.
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VINE VOICEon 13 August 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine 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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on 31 December 2015
After finishing 'I Am China', I sat back for a few seconds and tried to work out what I thought of it. It was either really good, I thought, or really bad. I guess my opinions on it were initially far too straight forward. On reflection, however, I believe that the book had good points and bad points both, but that the bad points kind of took over (especially towards the latter half).
With three main characters, 'I Am China' is the cultural odyssey of a Chinese revolutionary named Kublai Jian, his girlfriend Deng Mu, and a London-based Scottish translator named Iona Kirkpatrick. The plot basically revolves around these three characters as Iona tries to translate the first two's letters and diary entries. Plot-wise, I found the book very weak. Little is done to entice the reader or speed up the story, and even less is done to vary the excitement levels. As for the characters, I found each one intrisically soulless and rather boring. Let's start with Kublai Jian, the revolutionary punk musician who is expatiated from China. For a start, he is supposed to be deeply in love with Deng Mu. This barely shows in the narrative, or in the letters translates by Iona. In fact, he appears cold, heartless and, at times, cruel. Moving on to his lover, Deng Mu, a seeningly wannabe poet from rural China. She has a little more warmth in her, though still little to hold her up in terms of personality. Her words are trite and cliched, as well as being much repeated and overused. Finally, let's get on to Iona Kirkpatrick, the translator of Mu and Jian's letters and diaries. From the off she seemed like a 2-D, pencil-sketch character with too little shading. Her entire presence seemed like a plot-device. She was promiscious for no reason, depressive for no reason, and unenthusiastic, also for no reason. For such an expansive part of the book (almost one third) Iona's presence seems to be a complete waste of time. She basically reads like a tacky excuse to get the story going.
There were also quite a few crazy coincidences and trite, contrived scenes throughout the novel. For example, Iona's falling in love with her characterless publisher is strange and totally affected. The guy is boring, has unnecessary and overdramatic backstory, and reads like a weather report. Also, the whole narrative in Crete, in which Jian hangs out with this retired expat couple, is almost farsically random. Who are they really? Why are they here? And what, goddam it, are they trying to say? They bring nothing to the story except a filling device to thicken the width of the book. There is also the end scene, or rather end paragraph, which I won't reveal here - but it is highly cliched. The sheer overuse of common literary devices is incredible.
However, I will not say that this book is without merit (after all, I did mention it had its good points, right?). The deep examination of modern Chinese politics and culture is very eye-opening, and I found some of the narrative regarding nature beautiful. There are also many interesting (but, in terms of prose, tritely written) statements made about the reality and atmosphere of the UK.
To wind this ramble up, I will conclude that 'I Am China' is probably worth reading if you aren't looking for great or memorable literature, but want a bit of light 'betweentimes reading' for a week or so.
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VINE VOICEon 18 April 2015
Format: Hardcover|Vine 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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on 31 December 2015
No problems, excellent service
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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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VINE VOICEon 23 May 2015
Format: Hardcover|Vine 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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VINE VOICEon 17 September 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine 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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VINE VOICEon 14 April 2016
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
A beautifully written love story written from the perspective of an outsider. The author has a fluidity with words surprising in a non native English speaker. One becomes drawn into the lives of her main characters, brutally torn apart by fate and separated by oceans and ideology, and the jigsaw puzzle nature of the book means their story only slowly becomes clear, piece by hard won piece.

An insight into recent Chinese history is woven through this fascinating book and the tale touches questions of love, loyalty and family. An easy read which I enjoyed very much.
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VINE VOICEon 17 December 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine 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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