I recently finished Liu Hong’s Startling Moon, a book I’d picked up in Shanghai at the Confucius temple’s weekly secondhand book sale some time back. It took me some time to get around to reading it, and then took me some time to get into it once I started reading it. I did enjoy the end of the book more than the beginning, but it was overall a bit slow-moving for me. The portions that tell of Taotao’s childhood are a little tedious, despite the fact that her great grandmother and her paternal grandfather are two of my favorite characters in the book. When Taotao leaves for school, it becomes somewhat more interesting, and begins to move along at a better clip.
The book frustrates me a bit in its insistence on using English equivalents of Chinese names. It is bad enough to read “Steel” and “Willow,” but “Building the Country” and… “Hair”? Seriously? It is grating to read through a narrative that uses this sort of names. I prefer names to be Taotao, and am even in favor of using Tainainai (great grandmother) in some cases. Since those were both used in Startling Moon, it makes the choice of using these direct translations in other instances all the more strange. Just let “Building the Country” be “Jianguo.” There’s no reason to distract with such literal translations that don’t feel like names. (And anyway, who really thinks of those meanings when calling the names in Chinese?)
That said, my ambivalent reaction to the book might otherwise merely be a case of me being saturated with China narratives at the moment. There is nothing in Startling Moon that gets me excited, one way or the other, though it does deal with the Tiananmen Incident in a way that might interest many Western readers. I did like the way the book ended, for the most part, in that it is a bit open-ended, and somewhat understated. I was less thrilled with the reliance on the Western man coming in to save the Chinese woman, but it wasn’t quite as badly handled as that makes it sound.
If you are not someone already flooded with books to read on China, you might like Startling Moon. If, on the other hand, you’ve got other options, you might prefer to stick with those.
Note: For the sake of disclosure, it might be fair for me to point out that I grew up in the US during the same time as Taotao would have been growing up in China, were she real. I know that the character is a fairly good representative of many members of that generation, especially those who migrated elsewhere after ’89. For those who stayed, they shared much of the same childhood as Taotao, but their experiences during Reform and Opening up, and especially post-’89, seem quite different from those now living overseas. I understand why the experiences of those who left have become the prevailing narrative that Western readers have access to, though I wish there were a more dialogic representation of that period available in English.