There is this great bookshop in Canberra called The Asia Bookroom which specialises in books either about Asia or written by people from Asia. As a self-confessed bibliophile with qualifications in Asia-Pacific Studies, it’s hardly surprising that I absolutely love this place. One of the great things about the Asia Bookroom is its book club and I just recently went along to my first one. The set book was “The English Class” by Ouyang Yu.
“The English Class” is about a young man called Jing who has returned from the countryside at the end of the Cultural Revolution in China. While working in a mindless truck driving job where he feels like he doesn’t fit in, he teaches himself English and aspires to learning formally and gaining new opportunities. However, even as Jing moves on and achieves his goals his feelings of being a misfit linger. The further he ventures into learning English, the more he struggles with his identity.
Books come in different speeds and this one was a real grind. Even though it’s an important book, it took me weeks to get through it. Ouyang is an evocative writer but the subject matter ranges from bleak to grotesque. I can appreciate making a statement about depression and struggling to see the beauty in the world but his fascination with bodily fluids crosses the line from artistic to simply revolting. Jing’s issues with identity and self-esteem make him a really unlikeable character. Unfortunately this means that despite all the interesting commentary on mental health, identity, culture and language (especially where East clashes with West) this book is just too hard to get through to appreciate it.
An important message but not an easy read and definitely not for the faint-hearted. I would avoid this book if you are in any way squeamish.