Capital Letters

Time Magazine reviews Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth: A Novel, a new book written in English by author Guo Xiaolu:

As a novelist who is equally at home as a filmmaker, and a nomad who splits her time between Beijing, London and Paris, Guo underscores her gutsy insistence that the value of a story isn’t contained within geographic, linguistic or literary borders by perpetually crossing them.

Her latest novel available in English, Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, is a wry coming-of-age account of a young woman’s struggle to carve out a place for herself in the wider world. Set in contemporary Beijing, it peeks into the mind of Fenfang, a plucky dreamer who left her provincial sweet-potato-farming village in south China for the distant capital at the age of 17. Her youth, she tells us in the novel’s first lines, began several years and odd jobs after that, when she finally succeeded in parting from her “peasant” mentality and realizing that some of the modern, shiny things in life “might possibly be for me.”

The story is semiautobiographical. Guo grew up in a small village on an island off south China’s coast, and went to Beijing at around the same age as her character Fenfang. She churned out novels to support herself while in film school. In 2002, she left Beijing for London, where she continued her film studies and began writing A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, a humorous novel about her struggles with the English language and a British paramour. An expired visa forced her to return to Beijing, where she put the novel on hold and made Concrete Revolution, a documentary about how the capital’s ruthless physical transformation has affected residents and the rural laborers building it.

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