Tina S Beier
Cocoon - Book Review
by Zhang Yueran (translated by Jeremy Tiang)
I received this book as an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.
Psychologically complex and intricately plotted, this Chinese general/literary fiction is a rumination on generational trauma and inherited guilt.
What’s it about?
Cheng Gong and Li Jiaqi go way back. Both hailing from dysfunctional families, they grew up together in a Chinese provincial capital in the 1980s. Now, many years later, the childhood friends reunite and discover how much they still have in common. Both have always been determined to follow the tracks of their grandparents’ generation to the heart of a mystery that perhaps should have stayed buried. What exactly happened during that rainy night in 1967, in the abandoned water tower? Yueran’s la
yered and hypnotic prose reveals much about the unshakable power of friendship and the existence of hope. Hers is a unique fresh voice representing a new generation of important young writers from China, shedding a different light on the country’s recent past
The majority of this book takes place in second person, in that it’s a conversation between two friends catching up and revealing their side of a mystery and falling out between them. Yet, aside from a few lines here and there, most of it is in the past tense, so you forget it's in second person for the most part. And the second person is very well done and rather than trying to make it seem like the characters are describing you, the reader, it’s obvious they are talking about one another. So, it works. The characters are very deep and complex. Most of the novel takes place during an important time in both of their lives - both in terms of what was happening and because they were on the brink of teenagehood - and it’s clear in the scenes of them as adults that this has affected them quite strongly. The descriptions of how a child that age reacts and responds to events around them were spot on - Cheng Gong and Jiaqi are relatable, understandable characters who act their age and make choices that make sense to the reader. Nothing in this book is particularly eventful, which is interesting. It deals with families, and not the happiest of families - there is some neglect, some physical abuse, but nothing overly triggering for readers - and their dynamics. This isn’t an “our actions changed the world” type of story, but a dive into two families, their connection, and how parents' and grandparents' choices affected the youngest generation. It’s not a happy story, that’s for sure, but it feels real. Given the novel is a translation of a Chinese work, the novel focuses on the aftermath or effects of the Cultural Revolution in China, something I’m afraid to say, I don’t know a great deal about so I can’t really say much about that aspect. This novel though, while dealing with some family history during that time (60-70s) focuses more on how my generation (I’m not sure if they call people my age Millenials in China) was affected by the cultural revolution due to how their parents were affected socially by it, but I didn’t feel I was too out of the loop because most of it deals with more the parents' choices than the country changing around them. The main events of the story take place in the early 1990s, so I’m only about 3 or 4 years younger than the main characters, which really helped bring me into the story, given I don’t have the cultural background to identify with, but I do understand that level of generational different, despite my not living with my grandparents.
Yet, despite all this, on a personal level of reading enjoyment, it was far too heavy and depressing. It seems like while every person was complex, it’s more like most people are broken, terrible things, with good people being few and far between. Everyone apparently has no qualms about cheating on their spouses, for some reason, which makes them seem insincere and hard to sympathize with.
In truth, while I think the book is extremely well written, has moments of beautiful prose, and has in-depth characters that are influenced both by their home life and society at large, I can’t say I loved the story. It did drag a bit in places for me and the end result of the “mystery” aspect wasn’t overly interesting. Yet, I definitely enjoyed it and think anyone who has an interest in translated works, books about family dynamics, and China in the late 20th century will enjoy it or find value in it.