August has finally arrived, so welcome to Women in Translation Month at Tony’s Reading List 🙂 The event, which is running for the second year, is based over at the Biblibio blog with the aim of promoting women in translation and (hopefully) encouraging publishers to bring more of their work into English. Over the next month I’m hoping to read and review a range of books, from different languages, settings and genres – let’s see where we’re going today on our first trip around the world 🙂
Yan Ge is a successful and critically acclaimed young writer, and last year HopeRoad Publishing published an e-book of her novella White Horse (translated by Nicky Harman, review copy courtesy of the publisher). It’s a short coming-of-age story featuring young Pu Yun (‘Yun Yun’), a primary-school student living with her father, but mainly cared for by her aunt. Together with her older cousin Qing, Yun dresses up, does her homework and watches TV, just like all children do.
Over the course of the next few years, however, life becomes more complex. Qing grows up, leaving her cousin behind for make-up and boys. Tension grows in Yun’s family with her aunt and cousin constantly at each other’s throats, and Yun’s father involved in several relationships. As if that’s not enough, poor Yun, caught in the middle of all this action, begins to see a rather unusual visitor – a spectral white horse…
Short, but sweet (and bitter at times too), White Horse is a great little read, one you can knock off very quickly. Having read it on my Kindle, I’m not completely sure of the page count, but I’d guess that it would run to about fifty pages in a print version. It features a nice smooth translation by Harman, one which captures the voice of a child nicely while also avoiding the exoticism of some Chinese translations, where simple greetings are translated literally, thus sounding archaic.
There’s a sweet, innocent feel to the start of the book as we meet the cousins playing happily together:
“My cousin Zhang Qing and I may not have been the prettiest girls in our small town, but we certainly thought we were.”
(HopeRoad Publishing, 2014)
Despite the absence of her mother (and a deadbeat Dad…), Yun’s life appears a happy one, with plenty of support from her Aunt and the friendship of her cousin.
However, from here things can only go in one direction. The voice can be deceptive as it allows the writer to keep Yun’s innocence while creating a plot in the background, much of which is unseen by the young girl (and thus by the reader). With conflict occurring out of sight, we must read between the lines, each step of the story bringing us new information if we know how to interpret it.
As the girls grow up, Qing begins to throw off her childish ways, and Yun slowly loses her cousin to boys. It’s then that a sense of darkness descends upon the story:
“It was getting dark when I started to call my cousin. ‘Qing! Qing! Zhang Qing! Zhang Qing!’ Up and down the river bank I went but she still didn’t appear.
I seemed to see something in the eucalyptus trees on the other side, and screamed even louder: ‘Zhang Qing! Zhang Qing!’ The thing emerged from the trees. It was a white horse.”
As the story progresses, Yun encounters the ghostly horse more often. It’s a harbinger of doom, foreshadowing the troubling events to come…
The setting up of the story is excellently done. At times both Qing and Yun are childish (imagining their parents incapable of kissing, clowning around with make up), but these innocent moments serve to make the contrast with the later violent scenes even more vivid. This is particularly evident in the gradual development of the character of Aunt; where she appears as a kind, caring relative at the start of the story, she is increasingly shown as a harsh, violent woman with secrets she’s desperate to conceal.
In many ways, White Horse is a story which could happen anywhere, a story of a loss of innocence among family dramas. However, there are some more culturally bound aspects, such as the focus on schoolwork, the communal efforts to care for Yun and (oh yes) the public beatings:
My auntie’s mouth gaped as if she’d swallowed a duck egg. Then she quickly pulled herself together and launched herself at her daughter, digging her fingers into Qing’s face and yelling, ‘You bad girl! Flunking out of school and playing around with boys at your age!’
Bear in mind that this all happened in the presence of the teacher…
By the end of the novella, events have calmed down a little. Yun is focusing on school, boys and fountain pens, with the more adult issues forgotten for now. There’s a sense, though, that the events have left their mark on the young girl, and the tragedy of the story is that through no fault of her own, her future has taken a very different course. Sadly, childhood is a rather brief period of happy innocence – once the white horse has ridden out, things are never quite the same again…