I’m all for new writers and new voices and so I was very excited to read Braised Pork. Set in contemporary Beijing, the novel weaves themes of isolation and fragile human connections with a dose of magical realism as it follows Jia Jia, newly widowed after finding her husband dead in his bath with a drawing of a half-man half-fish creature close by.
Never happily married, Jia Jia responds to her husband’s unexplained death by trying to reconnect with herself and who she was before she married. A search for expression, individuality and a sense of freedom. However, unable to find answers, she instead becomes increasingly obsessed with the merman drawing her husband left behind and sets off to Tibet to find the source, or inspiration, behind it.
Now, there’s much to enjoy here, most especially in the moments where Jia Jia finds herself lost in the water world where the half-man half-fish creature lives; a world whose walls become increasingly porous with our own. There’s that wonderful dose of magic and fairy tales as Jia Jia immerses herself (literally and metaphorically) in a underwater world free from the expectations of the mundane ordinary world.
The problem is, is that she doesn’t do much in this world other than swim, and these passages are all too brief. You see, Jia Jia does very little for about 60% of the book; her husband dies in the first few pages and it’s not until we are over halfway that she decides to go in search of the fantastical creature. All the time in between these two points is rather wasted. There’s little character development or revelation and Jia Jia is not someone we ever really get to know.
I love An Yu’s vision and creativity and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next; perhaps her first novel should have been more tightly edited, however. In fact, you can’t help but feel that this is the subject for a short story only; there is insufficient material here for a novel.
This writing reminds me of Margaret Atwood at her most curious, or Samanta Schweblin’s gloriously dark collection, Mouthful of Birds. With its gothic touches and shadows, Braised Pork fits beautifully amongst these but, even though the book is only about 200 pages long, it’s still too dragged out. Some nice ideas but not – for me – a fully fleshed out novel.
Title available to buy from Penguin Random House; hardback £13.99.