When Jia Jia finds her husband dead, face down in the bath, her loveless marriage of convenience is over. On a piece of paper left on the floor, he has drawn a creature with the body of a fish and the face of a man. Otherwise he has left her their flat but little else...
A seductive, sharply observed tale of love, loss and hope that moves from high-rise Beijing to rural Tibet and the mysterious, magical 'world of water'.
There are clunky moments, but this is a sensitive portrait of alienated young womanhood as it is set free from the suffocating constraints of marriage and comes up for air. Dining alone in a restaurant, Jia Jia watches an older couple chatting companionably. It makes her feel her own isolation more keenly. But later on, understanding, fugitive and precious, comes to her. The world might be strange, surreal even, but, as Leo puts it: “Don’t you think that sometimes we just need to love in the simplest way possible?”
Poised between silliness and high seriousness, contrasting narrative wildness with cool prose, the novel ignores the conventional advice “tell a dream, lose a reader”. An Yu doesn’t entirely avoid the pitfalls of her approach, not least because there’s a sense that she’s using the in-built drama and pathos of death to overcompensate for how the story’s focus on dreams can make it feel as though it unfolds in an impenetrable private language. But, at its best, this is a debut that gets under your skin rather than leaving you cold.