Once Upon a Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up (5*)
(American title: Nine Continents: A Memoir In And Out Of China)
What a remarkable memoir this is. Born in 1973 and brought up by her grandparents in malnourished poverty in a remote fishing village in southeastern China, then taken back by her parents to the nearby industrial city of Wenling, before going to study in Beijing, she saw what to some families in Yorkshire would be two hundred years of change played out before she was twenty.
Her massive stroke of luck was to gain one of just eleven places at Beijing Film Academy in competition with over seven thousand other applicants. But of course, you make your own luck. She read and studied to the point of obsession, became fascinated with western literature and the beat generation, and later won a British Council scholarship to the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield. She settled in England, but it was still tough until, gradually, her films and novels gained critical acclaim.
At the heart of the memoir is her relationship with her parents. Her father was an artist, earlier imprisoned for “re-education” during the Cultural Revolution. While he was supportive and encouraging, her mother was emotionally hard and distant. Xiaolu resented that, as the daughter, she had to do all the household chores. Otherwise she was left much to her own devices. She suffered sexual abuse by an older boy in Wenling, and instigated an affair with one of her teachers. It sounds almost Dickensian, but it isn’t. What drew me to the book was a newspaper interview in which she dismisses Dickens as overrated, sentimental and lacking in poetry. None of these things can be said of Xiaolu Guo. She writes beautifully, in English, her second language, making nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties China real.
I complained in my last review about best-selling books which leave you without any life-affirming emotion, insight or inspiration. This memoir is not like that in any way. It had me admiring Xiaolu Guo’s intelligence and determination, and her sheer ability to survive, and looking at maps of southeastern China and wondering at the chance of life that enabled her to escape.
There are a number of interesting films of her talking about her books on YouTube, e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-ksxzU8Hv0