The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai: Book Review

The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai
Ruiyan Xu
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
Paperback UK Edition, 2011: £7:99
Kindle US hard cover: $4:81 (pbk. to be released October 2011)
Kindle US download, $11:99

Cover for The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai

This debut novel from Shanghai-born Ruiyan Xu is an exploration into the powerful role language plays in human relationships, and how the loss of this capacity can have serious, perhaps even irreversible effects on even our most personal interactions.

The basic premise of the story is that following a singularly unique brain injury, successful Shanghai businessman, Li Jing, loses his ability to speak. What is also key to the problem is that although he can comprehend both English and Chinese, the only language in which he makes any progress in broken English, his second language that he learned as a child when his family moved to North Carolina. Tragically, neither his wife, Meiling, nor his 8-year-old son, Pang Pang, can understand English.

To help with is rehabilitation, the hospital enlist the help of a US neurologist, Rosalyn Neal, who is a specialist in rare brain injuries and also going through a divorce. As a mirror linguistic image to Ji Ling’s wife, Rosalyn neither speaks nor understands Chinese.

It’s clearly not a clinical textbook. Any thoughts of gleaning some tips on how to work with bilingual aphasics should be abandoned even before picking up the book. There’s a half-hearted attempt at using an electronic translation dictionary as an augmentative communication system but nothing else appears to have been tried. Then again, this is a novel and not a pedagogic textbook so I may be being a little too critical. So let’s get back to the characters.

As a speech therapist, Rosalyn Neal is a good neurologist. She’s also not much of a psychoanalyst because her comprehension of the concepts of transference and counter-transference in the therapeutic relationship appear to be as foreign to her as Mandarin Chinese. And despite her initial plans to learn some Chinese, she is so wrapped up in her emotional distress that this doesn’t happen. Once she finds an ex-pat community to hang out with, her non-learning is pretty much assured. There are, in fact, times when Li Jing appears to be more linguistically capable than Rosalyn!

In truth, I don’t quite care for her. She’s not a heroine but all too human, to the point of being selfish. The world revolves around her, even though she wants to believe she is “caring” and “professional.” She is more Id than Ego or Superego and causes more conflicts than she cares to acknowledge or even be aware of.

In contrast, Meiling gets all my sympathy. She is the one who struggles most to come to terms with her husband’s injury. This is compounded by the fact that Li Jing’s successes were based on his ability to schmooze and cajole investors into parting with large amounts of money to his company, and without his speech, he is nothing. Meiling has to struggle with holding her family together and change her own life in order to do this. She is heroic.

Li Jing sits in the middle. I’d even be tempted to cast his role as that of the amanuensis of the emotions between his wife and his doctor. Although his spoken language is damaged, he works, unconsciously, as an interpreter of the feelings exhibited by the women. Rosalyn interprets Meiling’s emotional status by how Li Jing responds to her, and Meiling understands Rosalyn by how Li Jing reacts in her presence.

And it is this interplay of the non-verbal that makes the novel interesting. Other strands include the part played by Li Jing’s father; the relationship between Li Jing and Pang Pang; on the ways Meiling has to re-evaluate her roles as wife, mother, and professional now that Li Jing is unable to work. All of these are critical to the story but the narrative is fundamentally about the difference between spoken language and non-verbal communications.

The actual writing is fluid and colorful. The corpus linguist in me wants to download the Kindle version and run it through a concordance software and analyze keywords, where I suspect adjectives would shine. Some of the best prose comes in relation to the weather in Shanghai. For example;

As soon as they leave the air-conditioned cool of the hospital Rosalyn begins to sweat. It’s almost the middle of July, and the sun hammers down, vicious, the light almost pulverized. She doesn’t know how all these women in Shanghai can just float by in wispy silk dresses in this heat, their faces dewy and flushed instead of streaked with sweat.

Notice how the first sentence contrasts “cool” with “sweat,” and how the heat “hammers” and “pulverizes” yet the women merely “flush” and “float.” Xu isn’t afraid to use adjectives and is restrained enough to keep her writing from becoming mere purple prose.

Ultimately, the book is a satisfying read. The three main characters are solid and you get to see them change as the plot unfolds. You will doubtless have different sympathies and empathies to mine but that’s the sign of a good novel, the opera aperta of Umberto Eco where text has more than one meaning and interpretation by the reader is the critical element, not just the strings of words on a page.

Ruiyan Xu

Ruiyan Xu (image © Bloomsbury Press)

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