He had insisted that her nascent career as an artist ‘become a hobby’; but now she takes up the brush again and later paints six different versions of the fish-man. She also begins a relationship with Leo, a bar owner whose parents warn him against her: ‘A widow is bad luck.’ Jia Jia journeys to Tibet herself and lands a commission to paint a domestic mural of the Buddha’s life. Here the novel veers, not unappealingly, into magic realism: in the mural’s pool she see a silvery fish ‘inviting her to step into the water’, which she does, diving after it in an intensely dreamlike passage.
Somewhat inevitably, the novel’s ending supplies a heavy dosage of backwards exposition, which, even in high concentration, is insufficient antidote to the many questions and confusions created by the story’s later, fantastical turn. It is a pity, because in better, earlier moments, An Yu’s debut novel is light and laconic, animated by an elemental energy and sensitive to the emotional distances that can be sustained through proximity.
Characters come and go: the protagonist’s supposed best friend, for example, only appears once in what seems little more than a plot device. But An Yu writes with style, and her unfussy prose matches Leo’s description of Jia Jia: not “beautiful”, but “clean” and “elegant” in a way that is hard to resist.
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.