When Fenfang Wang, the protagonist and narrator of Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, finally reaches some semblance of happiness and freedom in her young life, she tries to reach back into her past to deliver a message to her 17-year-old self, an unhappy budding artist trapped in a boring fishing village in East China: "You must take care of your life."
The advice comes a bit too late for Fenfang, whose attempts to make it in turn-of-the-21st-century Beijing have been mostly frustrated: playing dead-end roles with no lines in TV shows, enduring the gossip of her old neighbors, a run-in with the law and a couple of disappointing affairs -- one with the volatile film producer's assistant Xiaolin, who is more jealous than romantic; one with an American grad student, Ben, who turns out to be ambivalent about their relationship and returns to Boston.
Xiaolu Guo depicts contemporary Chinese life in a way that few others can. There's some talk of Communists and rapid modernization, of course, but Guo's characters spend less time dwelling on China's changes than they do ruminating on their own. Fenfag, between jobs and boyfriends, contemplates her own loneliness, tries to eat on a budget of change culled from under the sofa and composes a film script, The Seven Reincarnations of Hao An, a bleak story about a peasant trying his luck in Beijing that echoes hers. The deus ex machina ending, when an indie director buys Fenfang's script, rings a bit hollow. But fortunately Guo keeps things vague, not promising success for Fenfang, only the freedom to travel and explore new possibilities.
What's remarkable about this English edition of Twenty Fragments(it was published in 2000 in Chinese as Fenfang's 37.2 Degrees) is that its author has managed to reach into her own past in a way that Fenfang cannot. Guo worked with translators to actually rewrite portions of the novel because, as she explains in an afterword, upon revisiting her work she felt unsatisfied by the way her younger self had written it, with naïveté and a lack of worldly experience.
All of Guo's novels feature young female protagonists from small fishing villages in Zhejiang Province -- can you guess where she's from? -- and this act of rewriting is not just an attempt to portray and capture life in modern China; it's Guo's attempt to understand and remake her own past.