Book review: Once Upon a Time in the East by Xiaolu Guo is a fascinating memoir of moving past terrible beginnings
Guo was handed at birth to a peasant family who couldn’t look after, then went to stay with her illiterate grandparents in a remote village – so how she ended up a successful filmmaker and English author is an inspiring story of will
Once Upon a Time in the East: A story of growing up
by Xiaolu Guo
Chatto & Windus
Xiaolu Guo has always been a writer who has worn both her heart and her integrity on her sleeve, whether tearing pages from her own life for her novels or experimenting publicly with form or writing in what is for her an entirely foreign language.
So it is hardly a surprise that her recent memoir, Once Upon a Time in the East: A story of growing up, is by turns raw, intelligent, compelling, sad, uncompromising and reticent.
Those who are familiar with her novels, such as the acclaimed I Am China from 2014, will know much of this story already, but here Guo fills in the many blanks. She didn’t meet her parents until she was seven. She had – for reasons that remain obscure – been handed at birth to a peasant couple in the hills who, two years later, realised that they didn’t have the means to care for her, and so she was passed to her paternal grandparents, penurious and illiterate inhabitants of a remote fishing village.
Her grandfather was taciturn to a fault, abusive and probably alcoholic; her grandmother – in effect sold for a mess of pottage when she was just 12, beaten down, taking solace in a statue of Guanyin – loved Xiaolu with self-effacing dedication.
There were indications that this life was not to be her lot. A Taoist monk who examined her palms announced that she was “a peasant warrior” and that she would “cross the sea and travel to the Nine Continents”. And then one day, some students from Hangzhou showed up to sketch the sea, and she watched them turn the brown water to blue and the cloudy sky to a half-orange, half-red sunset.
“Those young artists had snatched my heart. I knew I could no longer stay in the village,” Guo writes. “That afternoon, an hour after they left, a sunset danced above the kelp-tangled beach. The colours had been taken out of the girl’s picture, a scarlet red on a deep blue sea. I stood on the sand and watched as it trembled almost imperceptibly above the contours of the lapping waves. It was astonishing. Those art students had seen what I was unable to, even though I knew the village and the sea much better than they did.”
This was less portentous than it might appear for we – and Guo – find out, once she has been collected from the village to finally live with her parents and an older brother, that her father was an artist, and rather a good one. Her mother came from peasant stock which, in the inverted hierarchies of the Cultural Revolution, meant that she was marrying well beneath her when she took an intellectual for a husband. The marriage ended up strained, as did relations between Guo and her mother.
Guo’s new life is one of extremes. She struggles with the difficulties of transitioning to the more urban lifestyle, at school with undiagnosed myopia, and with sexual abuse. There are many things children never know about their parents, and Guo never entirely succeeds in understanding or explaining the dynamics of this quite dysfunctional family.
In the most wrenching passages of the book, she persuades her family to rescue her grandmother from her now solitary existence in the village to live with them; this never works and the grandmother returns only to die soon after.
Guo is on the other hand precocious to a fault, having poems accepted for publication while barely into her teens and finally winning one of fewer than a dozen places at the prestigious film school in Beijing.
The pace picks up from that point: we know that Guo ends up in London, an acclaimed writer as well as an accomplished filmmaker. But much of her life is one of rejection: she refuses to accept the fishing village nor the path (or lack thereof) that would have been her fate; she rejects Chinese men, vowing never to have a relationship with one; she ends up mastering English and writing in it rather than Chinese.
However, the denouement is acceptance of a kind, coming with, or catalysed by, the birth of her own daughter. “The narrative of my past has been brought to a close,” she writes.
Guo’s first novel to appear in English was Village of Stone (2004), a title that refers to the fishing village of her childhood. Guo’s originality was evident even then: it’s more than a tale of rural oppression and modern urban ennui and listlessness, for there’s a trace of magic realism in the descriptions of the Village of Stone which, indeed, hardly seems like China at all: it is cold and rocky, more like Sardinia crossed with Thomas Hardy.
She returns to the village at the end of Once Upon a Time in the East. Her grandmother’s house was now a “hair salon filled with fashionable teenagers”.
Guo’s talent is to highlight all those things about China that make it so different while simultaneously making it somehow seem both familiar and comprehensible; something that remains much in evidence in Once Upon a Time in the East.
It’s difficult to say what English speakers with no experience of East Asia will make of the book, but it should resonate bell-like with anyone on China’s English-speaking littoral who is of an age to remember the period the book covers.
It should also resonate with the young people of Hong Kong and beyond who are, we are told, disillusioned with their choices and opportunities. Guo was not a “peasant warrior” because a monk said so; it was because she chose to be.
The Asian Review of Books