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Review: White Horse; Yan Ge

White-Horse

White Horse

Hope Road Publishing, RRP £1.19, Suitable for ages 12-16

Publishers blurb:

“Yun Yun lives in a small West China town with her widowed father, and an uncle, aunt and older cousin who live nearby. One day, her once-secure world begins to fall apart. Through her eyes, we observe her cousin, Zhang Qing, keen to dive into the excitements of adolescence but clashing with repressive parents. Ensuing tensions reveal that the relationships between the two families are founded on a terrible lie”.

I like to think of books in translation as cultural exchange. They are an opportunity to experience the worlds that we are separated from by language; to visit cultures that may seem alien to us and to learn. With White Horse we get to visit a culture that is, literally, half a world a way, and in it we find that while culture and experience may separate us, humanity is universal.

This short novella, translated by Nicky Harman, peeks behind the closed doors and whispered conversations of a restrictive family environment to uncover the secrets within. It is a story that could happen in Paris, France or Paris, Texas. It could be Newcastle, New South Wales; Newcastle Tyne and Wear or Newcastle KwaZulu-Natal.  This time, though, it takes place in small town China. The cultural landscape is evoked beautifully and in the usual way – though food. Descriptions of meals, cooking and treats shared evoke the setting while character is revealed through dialogue. Yan’s characters have depth, warmth and humour, though they’re not always likeable.

White Horse is ultimately an entwicklungsroman, chronicling the growing sexual awareness of Yun Yun and her cousin, both in their own lives and the lives of others. As naïveté gives way to knowledge, the conservative hypocrisies and generational differences of the modern family is revealed. Yan’s real skill lies in her protagonists treatment of this situation; it is difficult to tell how much Yun Yun understands or even cares.

To delve to much in the the imagary of White Horse would be to give too much away;  this is a cerebral novella, reminiscent of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry or  Jostein Gaarder, but it is difficult to dicuss the narrative without at least touching on it. Chess appears as a motif and metaphor throughout the 30 page e-book but the major symbolic component is of course the white horse, a stalwart feature of both mythological and historical storytelling in China. Yun Yun processes the discomfort she encounters by envisioning (or perhaps hallucinating) a white horse, lending an air of magic realism to the tale. Gonsun Long’s famous paradox (can it be that a white horse is not a horse?*) is also recalled in the conflict of the story. Names and why we are who we are are not explicitly discussed but are alluded to. Perhaps Yun Yun needs to grow up a little bit before she can really tackle those questions.

With strong characterisation and some wonderful turns of phrase, White Horse is a quick but affecting read. 8/10.

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* Don’t be fooled, the fact that I am aware this paradox exists means that I understand it. I don’t. Not even a little bit.

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Review: Janice; Jean Goulbourne

Janice

Janice

Published July 2014,  Hope Road. RRP £3.43 (Kindle) £1.99 (ePub)

Publishers blurb:

Schoolgirl Janice, in the care of her single mother, with a father in prison, leaves the poverty and crime of the ghetto for a life with more prospects when her mother gets a job in the suburbs. But all is not what it seems, the affluent household she moves to has its own problems, and secrets, and soon Janice is caught up in a dark web of suspicion as the well-off girls at her new school look down on her and her ghetto past. Caught between two worlds, Janice begins to wonder if the grass is really greener on the other side of the tracks. Are these new upwardly mobile city dwellers any  better than the poor people at the standpipe in her old home, or the rural life of her grand-parents in the country? 

I am always faintly concerned when any work is described as a ‘moral tale’. Whose morals, exactly? Overt didacticism, however well-meaning, is prone to rejection from readers who feel like life is an eternal conveyor belt of thou shalt nots. The last thing they want in fiction is a sermon. Janice, from an author who has more than half-a-dozen other titles to her name, both poetry and prose, could sail too closely to a condescending pedagogy with her first venture into YA.

The primary plot concerns drug use among teenagers and, unlike Junk, for example or Crank, the good are unerringly good and the bad are unerringly bad. The titular protagonist is pious and wide-eyed, her antagonists mean and the grown ups, when they are around, perfectly loving and supportive. This, in addition to some clunky exposition and unsophisticated plotting (at one point the narrator muses “…if items began to disappear from the house, to be sold for Cornelia for more cocaine, they would be the ones suspected of stealing” Sure enough, five swipes of the thumb later items have gone missing.)  could render the text condescending.

But it is not. The prose itself is engaging. There are some fine descriptive passages, especially in the early chapters, and Jean Goulborne’s ear for voices means speech is rendered on the page beautifully. Ultimately,though,  Janice is primarily a book about class – how we define it and how it defines us – and this is how it avoids becoming cloying.

Transplanted to the affluent suburb of Saint Andrew, a large cosmopolitan parish in Jamaica, Janice is caught between her poverty-stricken family and friends and her new surroundings. Her mother, a practical nurse, has taken a place caring for an elderly patient and Janice, who dreams of academic success and a career that will let her escape the ghetto, must go with her. Both missing her old home and aspiring to have the things her new community has, Janice navigates her confusion with the help of the other staff.

The novel subverts the cultural meme that poverty is an eternal bedfellow of immorality. Middle class families lack the cohesion of the less fortunate families even though they don’t subscribe to traditional ideals concerning the domestic sphere and they operate under a different set of rules. As Miss Meline puts it, “Everything happen in this country, them blame it on us […] Nobody investigate them bank account.”

Them people who have too much always go on like them can’t get enough. Them never satisfy.

Entitlement, greed and recklessness are swiped at; the value of intangible assets is espoused and moral behaviour is foremost among these assets. It is those with money and influence who are most lacking.

There is a somewhat traditionalist approach hidden in Goulborne’s thesis on class. Obstacles are placed on every path – fair enough – but some don’t have the will navigate them. A collective push for betterment alone can lift communities out of want. This offers some balance to the picture of poverty revered as virtuous or holy, but it also hints at the idea of the deserving versus the undeserving poor. Janice, of course, does not deserve to be poor, and her goodness is rewarded by both hard work and luck.

To experience literature that takes place in a culture and context removed from our own can only be a worthwhile endeavour. Though Janice takes place half a world away its themes are universal. This is a Christian allegory wherein everyone gets their just desserts and characters make frequent reference to God. Such overt religiosity is not a common feature of YA but it does not feel out of place. Instead it contributes to a vivid rendering of  a cultural landscape that is largely unknown in the UK. The varied environments of Kingston are evoked through food, nature and speech and the difference between her home and St Andrew is clearly drawn. This is a captivaiting read.

Janice is an accessible novel that’s more suited to the younger end of the YA market. It deserves a hearty 7 out of 10.

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With thanks to Alex at HopeRoad for the review copy.

White Horse by Yan Ge is available from the same publisher in October.