Boy in the Twilight by Yu Hua

This short story collection has the subtitle “Stories of the Hidden China” and it presents narratives of local factory workers, the working class, and urbanization of villages. The stories feel contemporary, or at least dated to the 80s and 90s – so not set in a distant past.

(As I proofread this review, I checked my edition and its original, untranslated version was first published in Beijing in 1999. So I was quite accurate. Go me!)

I started reading Boy in the Twilight in a fancy brunch spot at an upscale Jakarta mall. Boy, it was the entirely wrong background. Some of the stories here are absolutely brutal. The opening story, titled “No Name of My Own”, follows a boy with learning disabilities who is tormented by his townsfolk from youth to old age, with one particular cruelty detailed in the story’s climax. In the title story, a fruit stall owner is merciless in punishing a boy-thief.

Not all the stories here are violent, thankfully. Some of them are more about domestic absurdity, another heavy on black comedy. Yet even the humor has an undercurrent of sadness, and the sense that life is ludicrous.

One theme that stands out in the collection is emotional repression. Many times, while reading, I thought to myself, ‘Why couldn’t these people tell the truth about what they really want?’ I counted 4 married couples whose relationships would be better off without petty tactics of saying one thing but meaning another or keeping quiet about a festering problem.

The fruit seller in the title story is repressed too. At first glance a simple story of harshly (too harshly) punishing a child, it ends with the realization that the fruit seller was expressing long-held feelings of unfairness and having been stolen from by life. Yu Hua never framed the fruit seller’s actions as excusable, but I admit to feeling a pang of sadness for this man.

I wondered if all this emotional repression is what’s meant by the “Hidden China” of the book’s subtitle. But that’s a reductive assessment. East or West, wherever the location, people generally choose to repress or ignore the unpleasantness of life. Instead, the subtitle might refer to the segment of society the collection focuses on. These are only brief glimpses of how the Chinese working class live and commute, but reading this collection, you can understand why the lives of the characters are brutal – and why the characters themselves can be so brutal.

The subject matter may not be pleasant, but Yu Hua’s writing is reader-friendly. His prose is stripped back, with not much description to bog down the pace. I wasn’t wowed or particularly impressed when I turned the last page, but it’s a good and solid short story collection. It captures well the human experiences that feel universal and yet local at the same time.

(A succinct book review to prove that I can still write a coherent book review! Congratulate me, guys! My first blog post after 1 entire year!)