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20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Challenges: 50 Books A Year (no.45)

“Heavenly Bastard in the Sky, isn’t it about time I got my lucky break?”

’20 fragments of a Ravenous Youth’ is the disjointed chronicle of Fenfang Wang; a young woman who leaves the monotonous life of Ginger Hill Village to make it big in one of the most complex capitals of the world, Beijing.

Unlike the other villagers, Fenfang is painfully aware of the hum-drum life of her existence. Days seem to melt into one another, and life feels like a provincial Chinese ‘Groundhog Day’, with her as an anonymous extra. So at 17 she leaves with dreams of becoming a star, of reaching the ‘shiny things’ in life.

Armed with nothing but stubborn willpower, a half-empty suitcase and a headful of dreams; Fenfang lays her tentative roots in Beijing; a city still crippled by its’ communist past. But life has other plans for her. What ensues isn’t a story of success, but one of painful loneliness and desperate survival. Suddenly Fenfang realises that this is how you pay for living in a city with a  population of 15 million. As Fenfang drifts from one dead-end job to another, a bunch of aimless relationships and an ever-growing list of silent, forgettable roles, she wonders whether she will ever make it, or if those ‘shiny things’ were ever be meant for her.

Guo’s depiction of the ‘ravenous’ dreams of youth and the blind courage that issues from this ‘throw-caution-to-the-wind’ attitude was one of the things I enjoyed about Guo’s story. Originally published in Chinese, Guo states that the entire process was spent ‘chasing a language for the elusive Fenfang’ even when she didn’t agree with her protagonist anymore, and indeed with herself.

“Ten years on, I found I didn’t agree with the young woman who had written it. Her vision of the world had changed, along with Beijing and the whole of China.”

And indeed, one gets a feeling that they are reading a much younger, spunkier, arrogant version of themselves. As a woman I could identify with Fenfangs urgent pangs of occasional self-loathing, her worries about her past becoming a suffocating template to her future and moreover the mysterious, distant call to realise one’s destiny, whatever that may be.

But like Guo, I can sympathise and look back in wonder at the ‘crazy years’ of learning life the hard way. Maybe not learning it quite as hard as Fenfang, but the moments where everything seemed like an endless assault course and survival meant dodging the curveballs life threw at you.

For me at least then, the narrative felt like a mash-up between some very familiar feelings and completely alien ones. For one, I loved the candid descriptions of the different districts of Beijing. Fenfang’s indomitable personality was a breath of fresh air, and her first-person account of all the things she sees and experiences is touching. There were more than a few times when I wanted to feel angry at this irresponsible, arrogant youth; but her truthful, wide-eyed innocence prevented me.

“Although Fenfang, the heroine of the novel, should still be desperate about her life, I wanted to convince her to become an adult.”

I like to think of ’20 Fragments’ as a story about the internal struggles of growing up. Namely, curbing our impatience with our surroundings and finding positive, constructive ways to get ourselves out of situations. As the novel progressed, Fenfang began to look inside herself and for once stop obsessing about her peasant past. One of the many lessons she learns is to accept who she is, and that is probably one of the hardest Fenfang has to face considering her Communist upbringing.

Breaking the mold to become an ‘individualist’ in a culture taught to act as a collective whole is no mean feat. Unbeknownst to her, what begins as a journey to distance herself from this ‘collective cockroachism’, brings her even closer to it. How Fenfang deals with it, is part of a story that is familiar to all of us yet different for each of us.

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