Book reviews: Mei Fong’s study of the one-child policy sounds like a dystopian novel
Fong shows the consequences, mostly unintended, of China’s ‘most radical experiment’; Olivia Laing explores how isolation changes us, and Rebecca Traister looks at the power of single women
by Mei Fong
Tantor Audio (audiobook)
In 2008, parents in one Chinese province rushed to reverse the sterilisations they’d been forced to undergo under one-child planning rules. The cause? The Sichuan earthquake, which had killed the only children of 8,000 families. Mei Fong’s book, which looks at a policy abandoned only in 2015, 35 years after it had begun, explores the consequences of the country’s “most radical experiment” while showing why it came to be (to grow China’s per-capita GDP quickly required increased output and, logic went, a slowdown in population growth); how it was enforced and whom it affected: over time, exceptions were made and those who could pay to have more children. Narrated by Janet Song, the book at times feels like a dystopian novel peopled by such pitiable characters as “Snow”, a nonentity because being an out-of-plan second child meant she could not have a hukou that would allow her to attend school. Fong, who personalises the book by telling of her own attempts to conceive, shows how the policy has led to huge sex imbalances and worse, although ironically the policy can be seen as a success: for many Chinese, she says, the one-child household is now considered ideal.
The Lonely City
by Olivia Laing
If you’ve ever been lonely or hungered for companionship, connection or kinship, you will be drawn to Olivia Laing’s book, which is unrelentingly sombre but not hopelessly dark. Hers is an exploration of the emptiness felt while living in a city surrounded by millions of people, which, she says, gives a particular flavour to loneliness. It’s also a look at artists whose métier was loneliness, including, not surprisingly, Edward Hopper. Insightful, The Lonely City also looks at the experiences of David Wojnarowicz and of Andy Warhol, whose hoarding of goods was an obvious sign of his social withdrawal and of his desire for the companionship of objects. Laing inserts herself into her book by revealing how an unexpected break-up left her single in a foreign city and wondering about the inner loneliness described by Virginia Woolf. New York city, and artworks that captured something of how she was feeling, sparked realisations about speech (something that troubled Warhol) and how loneliness can affect an individual’s ability to understand social interactions. Though a book about something difficult to categorise and often considered shameful, The Lonely City is strangely beautiful and life affirming.
All the Single Ladies
by Rebecca Traister
Simon & Schuster (e-book)
“We are becoming the men we want to marry.” Gloria Steinem’s observation resonates in this important book – which looks at what author Rebecca Traister dubs the “epoch of single women” – since it means women are no longer marrying politicians, lawyers or other professionals because they themselves can have these kinds of careers, and marriage no longer signifies the start of their adult lives. This is borne out in statistics showing that in the US the median age at which women first marry has climbed to 27 (and much higher than that in cities). Traister, who married at 35, writes that at 18, on the verge of independence, the notion of any permanent relationship was “patently absurd” for her, despite marriage having been the norm for every adult she knew in the generation before hers. She points to changes that have accompanied the rise in the single female demographic, the creation of microflats being one. In fact, since the mid-1970s, it has become easier for American women to buy their own homes and to secure credit cards. Policies she says must be readjusted include stronger equal pay protections and the protection of reproductive rights.