This was very gratefully received as an ebook from Random House UK/ Vintage Publishing via NetGalley.
Iona is a lonely Chinese translator who is one day given a parcel of letters and diaries with no information about who they belong to. The fragments are jumbled and some hard to read,but she pieces together the stories of Jian and Mu. Jian, a popular Chinese punk musician is in exile in Europe after releasing his ‘manifesto’ into the crowd at a concert. He writes to his love, Mu, and to himself in his diary as he tries to make sense of what has happened to him as he gets moved from various detention centres for asylum seekers and then finds himself free in Paris. Mu is trying to make a new life for herself as a performance poet, on the road in America for much of the novel, but struggling to emotionally break from Jian.
The protagonists’ stories are told to us in bits and pieces, sometimes first person in letters and diaries, sometimes a third person narrator observes what they are doing, with Iona’s life in the space in between. I’m not always a fan of this sort of switching point of view, but it works quite well here. Iona is an odd person, seeking fulfilment in a series of one night stands, I never really warmed to her. Mu too is hard to crack but once you learn more about her story, she becomes more sympathetic. Jian is a compelling character. His voice is poetic and passionate as he rails against the Chinese state and is desperate for Mu’s love. It is a tragic book, showing how the personal, political and cultural spheres can clash with devastating consequences.