China in September: An Excess Male

Maggie Shen King grew up in Taiwan but is now living in the US and writing in English. Nevertheless, since her novel An Excess Male takes place in a 2030 China that has to grapple with the consequences of its one child policy, I thought it was more than appropriate to include her in the China in September reading plans.

This was a really excellent, enjoyable read set in a recognisable near-future, a companion piece in some ways to The Handmaid’s Tale. Labelled as science fiction, I would consider it speculative fiction, the ‘what if’ scenario with the focus far more on the characters and their relationships, the technology only slightly more advanced than what we have nowadays but still chillingly plausible.

The premise itself is simple: China’s long-running one-child policy (revoked since the book was published in 2017), combined with the cultural preference for male heirs, has led to a severe shortage of women in this imagined 2030 scenario. Polyandry is therefore common, with men having to save up for years if not decades for a dowry, but many are left on the sidelines, at the mercy of state intervention. They are allowed to engage in regulated war games to let off any pent-up frustrations, are assigned a Helpmate to engage in monthly (or so) sex, and are periodically checked for sexual cleanliness in the most intrusive manner. They are also regarded with suspicion – could they be Willfully Sterile (i.e. homosexual), which is against the law, or perhaps one of the Lost Boys (introverted personality with no social skills and perhaps some mental health conditions), in which case they should not marry, for fear they might pass on their condition to their children.

Wei-guo is a personal trainer with a touching belief that as long as he continues to work hard, live by the rules and save money, his chance at marriage will come. He’s finally saved up enough money and goes to a matchmaker to find a suitable family – albeit only for the least prestigious of husband roles, namely the third husband (only recently allowed by law). The family he meets is not at all prepossessing at first: Hann, the first husband, is an imposing but cold businessman, the second husband is his younger brother, a taciturn computer specialist and inveterate gamer who wants to be known as XX. Yet Wei-guo feels an instant attraction to the wife May-ling, and even seems to get on well with her boisterous toddler son BeiBei, shunned by everyone at the playground.

However, it turns out this is a family with dangerous secrets. May-ling comes from a family of ‘daughter breeders’, who sell off their prized assets to the highest bidder. So the parents of Hann and XX, who long suspected their sons were not ‘normal’, paid very well to protect them by giving them the semblance of a normal family life. It turns out that Hann is gay and XX is what might be called an incel nowadays, and all of them would be severely punished if the state found out about their true situation. Can they trust Wei-guo to keep their secrets, especially in a state where surveillance is a given and none of your colleagues, friends or neighbours can be trusted?

The first part of this novel – in actual fact, three quarters of it – is all about the gradual burgeoining of the relationships between the four main characters, and is told from their alternating viewpoints. The world-building is subtle, rather than the main focus. Science-fiction or action fans will perhaps be disappointed that the fighting climax and rebellion come very late in the book. But this is precisely what I liked about it: it’s an exploration of the complexities of love, family, sense of belonging, about being allowed to show your true colours. It is also about the claustrophobia of living in a state that so heavily regulates your personal life, which needless to say resonated with me.

A book that throws up many interesting questions, with well-developed characters that I found myself truly caring for. I’m not sure why this hasn’t achieved the same buzz as The Power or The Last, for example, because it is absolutely deserving of it.

Family Secrets, Racism and Unfulfillment

Everything+I+Never+Told+You+-+Celeste+NgCeleste Ng’s ‘Everything I Never Told You’ is a quiet, gentle novel, which relies more on style than plotting, on gentle nudges rather than fireworks. It’s the kind of novel that first-time writers are told: ‘It won’t get published nowadays.’ But it did. It would probably have had a modest success and sunk with barely a ripple in the great ocean of books published every year in the US alone. But then the Amazon editorial team chose it as their top read of the year – heading a surprising list of lesser-known titles which the cynical amongst you might interpret as an attempt to boost sales for books which have not done so well – or an attempt to prove that they are sensitive souls after all.

To be honest, Amazon lists have little impact on me. If anything, they probably put me off a book rather than endear it to me (because I like to be counter-flow rather than following the herd). However, I had already requested and downloaded this book from Netgalley and it had been sitting for a while on my tablet (which is not a Kindle, incidentally). I have Chinese friends who grew up in the UK and experienced some discrimination in their childhood back in the 1980s, so I wanted to see what it would have been like in small-town America.

As you can imagine, not pretty! For this mixed race Chinese-American family, living in 1970s New York or Boston would have been … not easy, exactly, but acceptable at least. Living in a small college town in Ohio, however, makes life much more difficult and the author describes tribulations both large and small in a factual reporting style which makes it all the more heartbreaking.

Once a woman stopped the two of them in the grocery store and asked, ‘Chinese?’ and when they said yes, not wanting to get into halves and wholes, she’d nodded sagely. ‘I knew it,’ she said. ‘By the eyes.’ She’d tugged the corner of each eye outward with a fingertip.

No amount of teaching about American cowboys (the father’s specialist subject) is going to make them blend in.

Celeste Ng, from her website. Credit: Kevin Day Photography
Celeste Ng, from her website. Credit: Kevin Day Photography

The book opens with the chilling sentences: ‘Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.’ And there we are, bang in the middle of something sinister wrapped up in the mundane packaging of daily life.

Lydia is undoubtedly the favourite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue—in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular, well-integrated and accepted by everyone. Lydia tries so hard to live up to their expectations: her fears about failing physics, her disappointment with the science books her mother constantly gives her, her fake telephone conversations are all described with aching precision. Meanwhile, her older brother Nath feels protective towards her, but also stifled in his own ambitions by his parent’s lack of interest in his own future. [That was the one false note, incidentally, in the book: I cannot imagine a Chinese-American family being so disinterested in a son’s career.] Her younger sister Hannah is frequently forgotten by the family – a real after-thought in terms of family planning – and has therefore become more observant than most. She is the one who comes closest to untangling the poisonous web of misunderstandings, lies, wish fulfillment and belated efforts to repair matters.

This is not a mystery or crime story. It is very much a family tragedy, but it never descends into sheer melodrama. The story itself does not feel completely fresh and original, but it’s all in the telling. Beautiful, poignant, lyrically written, building up layer upon layer of insight into each of the characters (and making us feel so much empathy for each one of them), it is a tale to savour and remember.