Book Review: Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

shThis review was first published in The Star on 2nd Jan, 2018


By Jenny Zhang

Publisher: Lenny/Penguin-Random House, 320 pages

SOUR Heart is poet and essayist Jenny Zhang’s first collection of short stories, seven painful and often painfully funny coming of age tales, each featuring a young, female protagonist transplanted from China, navigating the strange waters of the United States and the even stranger waters of family dynamics.

I found Zhang’s collection difficult to read and was reminded of a question I used to ask a friend who tried to get me to read her favourite Chinese novelists: “Are there no happy Chinese stories?”

Granted, if you agree with Tolstoy (and to paraphrase him), happy people make for boring fiction, unhappy ones keep you turning the pages, hanging on to their every misfortune with gleeful schadenfreude.

Zhang’s narrators are children, and so haven’t yet mastered the adolescent art of indifference, the skill of cover-up, the ability to avoid at all cost. They tell it like it is, no words minced, innocently brutal and disgusting with their guileless, matter-of-fact and euphemism-free descriptions of their lives.

To be honest, I couldn’t quite relate to these tales of the immigrant experience, but then I have always had a problem with diaspora fiction and its concerns. However, Zhang’s stories feel different from the ones I’ve read before. While the search for identity, the confusion over language, nationality and race, and the lack of belonging are the themes explored in her work, same as the work of writers like Yi Yun Li, Nam Le, and Jhumpha Lahiri, the childish lens through which these issues are viewed and processed in Zhang’s tales give them a different shape and texture, one I can more readily understand and sympathise, if not empathise, with.

It may be that I feel more kindly towards these characters because they are children who have no choice but to live (literally) shitty lives in a land that their parents have decided will mean a brighter future for them; a land of free speech and equality for all, where they have to deal with being called “chink”; where their parents have to work three jobs each to barely make ends meet; where the plumbing in their tiny flat (shared with six other families) is so crap that excrement won’t flush until its mashed up with old toothbrushes and chopsticks.

Yeah, the details of these lives are often hard to stomach; not just the stuff about body fluids, sexual experimentation and horrific living conditions, but also things that happened in the past, during China’s cultural revolution, for instance; things these children’s parents saw and experienced and did, and have to live with, deal with, forget.

I coped by spacing my reading, allowing myself just two or three stories a week, with some days’ breathing room in between.

Some stories and descriptions made me gag; some I read with embarrassment and recognition, recalling my equally prurient childhood; all were powerful and convincing, leaving technicolour, malodorous impressions that filled me with sadness mingled with exasperation.

JZAt the same time, despite the misery that oozes off the printed pages, the narratives are also darkly humorous in a ‘this is so tragic you’ve just got to laugh because if you don’t, you’ll kill yourself’ kind of way.

Ultimately, Zhang’s characters, adults and children, are survivors – reckless, brave, vulgar, infectious and, against all odds, endearing.

I am irresistibly reminded that once upon a time, my forebears too gave everything up and ventured to alien parts, to live hard, uncertain, fearful lives because they hoped for a better future, for themselves and their children.

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