Book review – Xun Yuezang’s debut novel is a potted history of today’s Hong Kong that reads too much like a textbook
First-time author of Liberationists: A Story wanted to write a love story, a series of political essays, and a personal blog on everything from soccer to government flats; trying to put them all together was a blunder
Liberationists: A Story
by Xun Yuezang
Liberationists by Xun Yuezang, like many debut novels, is a work weighed down by its own good intentions.
The story is told in the voice of a worried husband in Hong Kong addressing his missing wife, an activist who has disappeared in China. The wife, Y, is a daring, free spirit who works for a Western human rights organisation. She embarks on a risky trip across the border to investigate the fate of a political prisoner, without the full knowledge of her mild-mannered husband.
Liberationists offers a glimpse into the tense daily lives of those who live on the edges of society – whether it is a Tibetan asylum seeker in Paris, an exhausted aid worker in London, or a human rights advocate in Hong Kong. Each of Y’s China trips entails precautions like an escort, timed calls to her husband, and a list of emergency numbers just in case things go awry. But, of course, they still do.
It’s a compelling story with some lovely imagery. The husband is left to care for their toddler daughter, highlighting the emotional damage that political prosecution can take on families. In one scene, he does a clumsy salsa by himself in an empty living room, imagining he is dancing with Y.
The entire book is written as an extended love letter to his wife. But 600-plus pages is an awfully long time to try to maintain such a literary conceit (much less the second-person narrative), and numerous detours and flashbacks do not help.
The book sometimes reads like a textbook on human rights. Every major recent development – the escape of blind activist Chen Guangcheng, the knife attack on Hong Kong journalist Kevin Lau, the entire “umbrella revolution” – is shoehorned in. The Communist Party is invariably known as “the Partystate” and, at one point, the author literally lists out forms of political coercion.
Xun wanted to write a love story, but also a series of political essays, and maybe also a personal blog on everything from soccer to the size of government flats. Trying to put them all together was the faux pas of a first-time author publishing for a small press.
Liberationists would have benefited from a critical and professional editor, who could have given this piece of writing polish, focus and concision. That said, in today’s commercial publishing industry, there are few opportunities at big presses for lengthy literary works about Chinese human rights activists.
The best political novels use the power of fiction to transcend the news of the day – and Liberationists is not quite there yet. One hopes that this well-meaning debut will be followed by more efforts from Xun.