This month our book club, The Readers’ Circle, read the novel Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge. If you have come to any of our meetings you’ll find me often admitting that the book wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. But, I am always excited to talk about each title and learn what others got out of each book that I just might have missed.
My experience reading this month’s title couldn’t have been more different. I adored Strange Beasts of China.
The story takes place in a fictional city of China where our protagonist embarks on a journey of sorts to chronicle exactly as the title implies: strange beasts that live in China. Only, every beast is strangely human… Each chapter is told as almost a standalone story and centers around when the main character encounters each of these beasts in odd and unexpected ways. With each encounter we learn more about her past and how her life has been inexplicably entangled with these creatures. The scifi/urban fantasy aspect of the book immediately drew me in, but the intriguing and often bizarre story kept me along for the whole ride. Ge’s writing style is very concise and readable, which for me lead to a very quick read.
Strange Beasts of China was published in Chinese and later translated into English. One criticism I have read about this novel is that there are numerous dialect conventions, wordplays, and references that are completely lost in the translation. Many of which are believed could have been addressed in the translation more effectively. That being said, I would have never known this book was translated. I thought the situation, characters, and language felt relatable in a way where the story could have taken place in any city in any country on the planet. I don’t mean that to say that anything felt generic. Quite the opposite. To me it felt like the translation was made to bridge the barriers often encountered in work translated from different languages and cultures.
I will freely admit that this book may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Scifi and Fantasy are definitely my preferred genres so seeing how an author from a different cultural tradition would approach the genre definitely added a layer of intrigue for me. I’ll also acknowledge that I enjoy interesting story more than beautifully written ones. The language used by Ge is concise and serviceable, but the story is the point here, and not so much the language. But that could be an area where her literary flourishes went missing in the translation.
All in all, a fantastic and fantastical work that I would recommend to many readers. While surely a work of fantasy, the beasts and other supernatural elements are really just the window dressings to explore what it means to be human. Which is often what my favorite works of Science Fiction and Fantasy always are.