Top critical review
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Interesting Concept, Unfortunate Manifestation
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.