” Time does fly for the middle-aged: a decade whips by in the blink of an eye, a flick of the fingertips. When you’re still young, even three or four years, maybe five, can seem an entire lifetime. That’s all they’d had, from meeting to parting—just a few years together. But in that brief span, they’d had a full measure: all the joy and the sorrow that comes with (as the Chinese saying goes) birth, old age, illness, death. ” (Ch.1, p.1)
Half A Lifetime Romance is Eileen Chang’s most beloved novel and yet the last to be available in English. Set in the 1930s Shanghai, the tale revolves around an unlucky duo whose life circumstances along with malign scheming on the part of their families prevent them from being together. But the brief span of relationship renders a full measure of life.
The novel does begin with a sense of hopefulness despite all the ominous endeavors to come. Gu Manzhen, a charming, modest young woman, is determined, after her father’s early death, to support her large family through respectable, if poorly paid, clerical work. At work she meets Shen Shijin, a young engineer at the textile mill who finds her fortitude both graceful and inspiring. He is as withdrawn as she is task-driven. Like many a young man in his times, Shijin is the product of a conservative, emotionally complicated household poised on an antiquated moral system of which the casualty are women. He tends to be diffident and unsure of himself.
Manzhen could be quite strange sometimes. She could be extremely and uncomfortably self-conscious, but then again, entirely un-self-conscious—and yet she was by no means a simple-minded person, someone who had no social awareness; nor was she the bashful type. (Ch.3, p.46)
Indeed Manzhen navigates within the claustrophobic boundaries of her home and familial obligation. She has take extra tutoring work after her regular job to make ends meet—all because she wants to relieve the burden of her sister, Gu Manlu, who has been working as a taxi-dancer and escort. She is conscious of her sister’s line of work, but even more piteous of her being deprived of any prospect of marriage. This family dynamics exerts a tight grip on the plot. Manlu’s work has become the root cause of Manzhen’s argument with Shijin, setting the faultline for the impending disaster.
Kicked into motion is a series of insidious scheming, manipulations, and misunderstandings that sets Manzhen and Shijin apart. Highly unusual in any literature, mothers become wreckers of this relationship, being partially complicit in the malign forces that work their way against the couple. Chang masters in plumbing such personal and inter-family psychology by indirectly recounting her own family dramas. She was raised by a single parent and locked horns with her step-mother. The result is a seamlessly layered story of love, betrayal, opportunism, family oppression, and above all, bad timing.
Throughout the novel, Chang fleshes out her characters by setting up parallel yet differing events in order to reveal shades of difference in their personalities. There are meetings of family members, visits made to the Gus and to the Shens, outings of Gu and Shen’s friends—all contribute to a sense of ephemeral and yet the best of times. They have lived the best of times together despite the brevity.
Through the character of Manzhen, a girl “who knew herself and her world, and yet she could be utterly naive” (Ch.5, p.91), Chang exposes the human vices: selfishness, greed, hypocrisy, double moral standard, deceit and debauchery. That the most vulnerable and modest character shall be subjected to such harrowing experience is bent to provoke empathy. She serves as a vehicle through which reader can trace the vicissitudes that take one from naivete, through trauma, and beyond.
As for the writing, Chang’s has the cinematic touch that really sets the atmosphere. In sharp contrast to the high-strung, tendentious tonality of wartime Chinese literature, her style is wrought with sarcastic rhetoric, witty imagery, and opulent symbolism. There’s an ornateness in her language that doesn’t bog down the pace of her story-telling but serves to bring alive the forms of life. These forms, which find manifestation in signs, whether in fashion or language, are both splendid and desolate. Paradox is an important element in this book and in her works overall. That all said, the English translation is brilliant, but inevitably tames and contains the Chinese texts, trading greater decorum for mess edge and pungency.
377 pp. Penguin Modern Classics. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]
Filed under: Books, Chinese Literature, Contemporary Fiction, Literature, Translated Literature Tagged: | Books, Chinese Literature, Contemporary Literature, Eileen Chang, General Fiction, Half A Lifetime Romance, Literature