Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Book Review: Frog by Mo Yan

Frog opens with a playwright nicknamed Tadpole who plans to write about his aunt. In her youth, Gugu—the beautiful daughter of a famous doctor and staunch Communist—is revered for her skill as a midwife. But when her lover defects, Gugu’s own loyalty to the Party is questioned. She decides to prove her allegiance by strictly enforcing the one-child policy, keeping tabs on the number of children in the village, and performing abortions on women as many as eight months pregnant.

In sharply personal prose, Mo Yan depicts a world of desperate families, illegal surrogates, forced abortions, and the guilt of those who must enforce the policy. At once illuminating and devastating, it shines a light into the heart of communist China.
Writing
There's obviously a reason that Yan is a Nobel Prize winner - the writing here is just stunning.  It's one of the rare books that may not contain much actions, but is still compelling enough to keep you from putting it down for a second.  It's definitely character-driven, and I loved the way it leads the reader to be both sympathetic with Gugu and disgusted with the choices she makes.  It's a great example of how everyday people react to living within a totalitarian regime.  While we frequently see the heroic resisters portrayed, this book takes a look at those who buy the party line - whether it's because they truly believe it's best or out of self-preservation.  As much as I hated the things Gugu does throughout the book, I really felt for her and I think it's a direct result of the way Yan develops her character through the eyes of her nephew.

Entertainment Value
As I mentioned above, the book is definitely character-driven and not full of action.  For me, that wasn't a problem at all.  I found the characters and their situations intriguing enough to keep me reading.  It's not a particularly difficult read, but it's not going to be a fast-paced read, especially if you're looking for something that reads quickly.  While it won't appeal to those looking for something fast-paced, I think it still has a pretty wide readership.  It's got beautiful descriptions of Maoist and post-Maoist China, but doesn't focus so much on the history that the reader is distracted from the characters.

Overall
I thoroughly enjoyed it and will be on the lookout for more by Yan, who has somehow never been on my radar before.  I think it's ideal for readers of literary and historical fiction, particularly those who aren't as keen on the romantic aspects that are typically present in historical fiction.  This is more about characters than romance, which I think is one reason it really appealed to me.  It's led me to a greater interest in China's recent history and inspired some research there, which is always a great thing to say about a book.  If you've read and enjoyed anything by Ha Jin, this is definitely one you'll enjoy.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to review.


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