Language shapes us – how we communicate, how we express emotion, how we articulate our internal thoughts and feelings are an intrinsic part of who we are as individuals. To loose language is to loose our sense of self.
This absorbing novel explores just such a case.
Li Jing, is a successful financial entrepreneur who lives in Shanghai with his wife Zhou Meiling and their young son Pang Pang. One evening, whilst dining in a big old-fashioned hotel restaurant with his father, there is a massive gas explosion and the whole Swan Hotel collapses into a morass of metal, concrete and glass. Li Jing is badly injured in the explosion – a shard of glass pierces his forehead causing severe brain trauma. He survives but requires brain surgery, and when he eventually awakens from the coma he has been in, he is no longer able to speak Chinese. The few words he is able to utter are English, a language which he has not spoken since he was a ten year old when he and his father returned to Shanghai after living in the USA for some years. Meiling and Pang Pang cannot speak English, nor can the doctors treating him. Shock, frustration and distress drive Li Jing into complete silence.
Li Jing is diagnosed with the brain disorder Broca’s aphasia; none of the speech therapists or neurologists in the Shanghai hospital are able to treat his condition, and eventually an American neurologist, who is a specialist in this field, is persuaded to come to Shanghai with the intention of coaxing Li Jing back into speech. Rosalyn Neal –who cannot speak Chinese – finds that she is disorientated by her new environment where she, like her patient, is unable to communicate with the people around her.
Meiling finds herself in a place she never expected to be, trying to keep her husband’s business going, carrying the family single-handedly whilst sensing that doctor and patient are forging a relationship that seems to exclude her.
Born in Shanghai and moving to the USA aged 10, the author Ruiyan Xu has obviously experienced what it is like to live in a place where you cannot speak the language, and the problems that arise as a result. It is hard to believe that this her first book, she is a wonderful writer who makes the reader really think about how we rely on words, and how the lack of mutually comprehensible language can cause immense misunderstanding and mistrust between different cultures.