The seven short stories in this anthology almost defy classification. Their plots might hinge on a sudden moment of criminal madness – theft, murder, rape – but each of these self-contained stories is about something far more subtle, the brutalisation of the soul, perhaps; the subjugation of the self. The author was a police officer in China, and his writing definitely displays the authority of hard-earned experience.
The narratives might offer intimate insights into modern Chinese relationships and society, but at times you can feel every minute of the millennia of cultural distance between East and West. Don’t expect to be spoon-fed high drama or histrionics. These aren’t frothy romps to be devoured in short order. Nor are they instantly accessible. The language might’ve been flawlessly translated, but the underlying state of mind and the hidden messages are far harder to fathom.
The storytelling is at times almost stilted, so detached and understated that the characters are almost impossible to relate to. It feels weirdly other-worldly and slightly out of focus. I simply couldn’t relate to many of the situations, and presume that I was missing out on the meaning of the metaphors.
However, this means that the rare moments of unexpected connection are all the more powerful. It’s like lightning slicing through metaphysical mist, but blink and you might miss a pivotal instance of illumination.
Not an easy anthology to enjoy. Rather, one to admire after absorbing over time.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Two Lives by Ay Yi is available at Amazon