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Xiaolu Guo: 我心中的石头镇 (Village of Stone)

Xiaolu Guo’s first novel available in English was also her first translated novel – she only started writing in English with her later novels – though she had written other novels in Chinese that have not been translated. This novel tells the story of Coral Jiang in two parts – when she was a child in the eponymous Village of Stone and the current period, when she is an adult. In the current period, she is living with Red in an apartment in Beijing. She is twenty-eight and Red twenty-nine. She works part-time in a video rental shop. Red has just quit his job, as he doesn’t like work but his parents help him out. They live, as she says, like hermit crabs, seemingly having little social life . Despite this, they do not seem to be close. Indeed, she makes it clear that she does not intend to spend the rest of her life with him. He does have an ambition – to make frisbee throwing an Olympic sport and to win a gold medal at it. He plays a lot and is trying to set up frisbee teams in Beijing. However, as the title makes clear, this novel is more about her childhood in the Village of Stone.

The Village of Stone is a remote village on the South China coast. It is continually buffeted by typhoons so the houses are made of stone and stones are put on the roofs to prevent them from blowing away. Most of the vegetation has been blown away. The inhabitants mainly make their living from the sea, harvesting whatever they can from it. However, fishing is very dangerous, given the weather, and many fishermen have died. Coral starts her tale when she is seven. She lives with her grandparents. Her father ran away before she was born, to escape the fisherman’s life. Her mother gave birth to her in a rowing boat and died before the boat came to shore. Her grandparents do not speak to each other. Her grandmother had escaped from her village when she was twelve and walked four days till she found the Village of Stone. The grandfather was looking for a wife so, though he was ten years older, she was married to him. However, she was an outsider and did not understand the local customs. She made several faux pas which, according to local custom, would have a dire effect on the fishermen. Indeed, when her father-in-law and grandfather-in-law both died at sea, she was blamed. This drove the couple apart and, though they live in the same house by the sea, they have little contact. Unlike most of the other men in the village, the grandfather has given up fishing – his ship was wrecked in a typhoon and he had had enough – and he sells cigarettes, alcohol and other sundries.

While her grandparents’ relationship is annoying for Coral, she has a far greater problem – the mute. The mute follows her around and when he catches her alone, he sexually assaults her. She spends much of her time trying to avoid him. We follow her story in the Village of Stone – death of grandfather, schooling, early affair – till she feels obliged to leave and take the bus out, a journey she has always dreamed of making. Meanwhile, in the present, she receives a huge packet from the Village of Stone – an eel. She has no idea who it is from or how anyone there knew her address. She also receives a surprise visit.

It is a fairly simple story – young girl with difficult background but one that has clearly influenced her is struggling with new life and boyfriend. Can they both grow up and become a couple, without their old lives holding onto them? Guo tells her story well, particularly as regards the sea and its influence on her life and the life of her family and neighbours

Publishing history

First published in 2003 by Shanghai wen yi chu ban she
First published in English by Chatto & Windus in 2004
Translated by Cindy Carter