Book Review: Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge

Strange Beasts of China – Yan Ge (Melville House, 2020) (translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Tang)

Our unnamed narrator lives in the city of Yong’an. It is a city where humans live side by side in a tremulous peace with various kinds of beasts. Some of these beasts are frequently present in the humans lives, some are never seen. Some are violent or seen as dangerous, others have been subdued by the humans around them. Some beasts inter-marry with humans, others are dying out. The narrator is a writer and in each chapter she introduces us to a different type of beast. There are Sorrowful Beasts and Flourishing Beasts and Thousand League Beasts and others. We are given a brief physical description but “other than that, they are like regular people”.

Each chapter is almost like its own story as it explores a different kind of beast but the book definitely works as a whole as we learn more about our narrator, her relationships to the beasts around her, and her own history. There are characters that appear in each chapter too, from the bartender at the bar she frequents to her former professor and his assistant who keeps showing up in her life.

This is a book that’s hard to classify and though I truly enjoyed it, I’m at a bit of a loss as to know who to recommend it to. It has an air of speculative fiction but, aside from the beasts, it’s quite grounded in reality. There isn’t any magic or crazy science fiction stuff going on here. Neither is it a plot-heavy book since there isn’t a lot of straightforward action that carries the reader from beginning to end. At the same time, I wouldn’t classify it as a character novel either since we never dive deep with any of the characters, even the narrator. It was curiosity that drove me forward – what were these beasts? What was the narrator’s connection to them? What was the real history she had with her professor? For me, this was enough.

This novel was translated from Chinese and the author’s bio tells me that she was born in Sichuan and now lives in England. As such, I found it impossible to not read this book as a sort of allegory of Chinese culture and government. I’ve been to Sichuan and spent some time in its capital city of Chengdu. If you know even a little bit about minorities in China or the way the Chinese government works, it’s not hard to see the connections in the way the city of Yong’an reacts to the beasts in its midst.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge”

  1. Ooh, that does sound like a book for a very specific kind of reader. I’m not sure it’s me; I discussed recently how Plett’s character-driven novel left me floundering despite enjoying the characters. It almost sounds like this book functions like cards you might pull out of a box and learn/read about. Not quite Tarot cards, but something like that.

    1. That’s not a bad way to think of this book. It does work as a whole and there is a back story that is revealed as you read through but the chapters do also really function on an individual level and in some ways you could read them in any order.

  2. Not sure if this book is for me, having very little knowledge of China and its government I probably wouldn’t ‘get it’, and it sounds like you need to really invest in the narrator and these beasts to find this a worthwhile read. Very unique premise!

    1. You can read it as it is without delving into what it might mean as an allegory about China. But I think you’re right that you need to invest in the narrator and the premise to fully enjoy the book. It’s definitely not for every reader.

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