The Life of a Banana by P P Wong
|The Life of a Banana by P P Wong|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: Virginia Croft|
|Summary: This novel questions society's need to categorise us by ethnicity, nationality, gender and simply asks: Who am I? Why am I? Read it, love it, think about it, share it, but most of all - enjoy it.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 269||Date: September 2014|
|Publisher: Legend Press|
|External links: Author's website|
Longlisted for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction 2015
It has all the makings of a Victorian melodrama. A young girl’s mother dies on her 13th birthday. She and her brother are packed off to live with evil grandmother, strange uncle and flighty aunt. But this is very much a 21st century tale for the protagonist, Xing Li, is a British born Chinese girl.
So let’s meet the cast:
Xing Li, born and bred in London and what the Chinese call a banana – yellow on the outside and white on the inside. She speaks no Chinese, but feels an outsider in both the Chinese and British communities.
Lai Ker, Xing Li’s brother. Always a constant in her life, but he has his own struggles as he tries to find his own sense of self.
Grandma, vitriolic and rules her family with a rod of iron. A virtual stranger before the death of their mother, she whisks Lai Ker and Xing Li away, puts them into private school and insists that the children are no longer Kwans, their family name, but now Wus – they belong to her.
Uncle Ho, strange and scary. He locks his room and communicates rarely; Grandma is his main contact with the outside world.
Auntie Mei is an actress. In love with all things bling and Hollywood, she nonetheless is ruled by the same rod of iron.
Jay becomes Xing Li’s best friend. Half Chinese half Jamaican, he knows what it is to be an outsider.
The story progresses swiftly through tragedy, growing up, mental illness, family secrets, violence; but the overwhelming theme is of Xing Li’s search to find answers. To find a place that is her liveable place in her home and her culture.
For me, it was an easy read. Strange, perhaps, given the overwhelming tragedy? But PP Wong manages to lure us in with a fast paced tale, but somehow gently. As the novel started I found myself, although intrigued, less disturbed than the subject matter seemed to suggest. Xing Li seemed to struggle to find her voice, with the first part of the novel being told almost as from the viewpoint of an adult trying to recall the feelings and thoughts of a 13 year old girl. By the time I was half way through, I suddenly realised that Xing Li had become more real, more present as the real time narrator. By that time I was completely hooked!
The book itself has been beautifully produced by Legend Press. The cover is tactile, neither gloss nor matt, but have a feel of perhaps oiled silk. At the beginning and end of each chapter are tiny motifs – I suppose you could call them an anglicized representation of Chinese Hanzai. When I read the book again, which I certainly will, perhaps my next reading will just be of these tiny pictures to see if they make some sort of a story within a story. That will be my luxury reading. Giving myself the time to explore and digest the book in a completely different way.
As a first novel this is an accomplished piece of writing and I can heartily recommend it. I look forward to hearing much more from PP Wong.
For more on a similar subject we can recommend Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua.
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You can read more book reviews or buy The Life of a Banana by P P Wong at Amazon.com.
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