A Bend in the Yellow River – Justin Hill

Planning to start this on the tube home tonight – the blurb claims to offer “a first class introduction to contemporary China” – albeit pre-SARS.

Verdict: I thoroughly enjoyed it! Read the review below….

Buy it: Amazon link

The edited diary of Justin Hill’s 2 and a bit year stint as one of 2 VSO volunteers in a remote Chinese teaching training school makes for fascinating reading. The day to day events and accompanying emotions recounted in Justin Hill’s diary provide the reader with a window into the world of the VSO volunteer in China, as an alien looking LaoWai, 5 years after the Tiannamen Square massacre. The record also gives glimpses into both the lives and the characters of the people Justin and fellow VSO volunteer, Marco, meet, through work, through bureaucracy, and in the course of everyday life in Yun Cheng.

Looking at the sketch map provided at the start of the book, Yun Cheng doesn’t look that remote. But it doesn’t take many pages before you realise that Shanxi province is a million miles away from any image or expectation of China most of us would be able conjure up – 6 hours by ytrain from Yuncheng to Xian. 46 hours from Xian to Guanzhou, 1 hour from GuanZhou to HongKong. The distance, and the cultural and social isolation, is brought home at the end of the book, at a point where thre narrative had shifted from observing Yun Cheng and its people through the eye of an outsider and has begun to look deeper, raising questions of how much control the state, both cental organs and the local party, has over people’s lives and aspirations.

And yet for most people Justin Hill met during his time in Yun Cheng, “a small town where the people have narrow horizon’s between mountains and chimney stacks”, this town was the most exotic place they would see. For a reader living in a city where where people fly to New York or Paris, Istanbul or Iceland for the weekend, the differences are stark indeed; and all the more fascinating for that.

The Painter – Will Davenport

A birthday present from Emma, this novel travelled out to Walton and back again before I started it this weekend just gone.

Shuttling between mid-17th century life of down on his luck portrait painter van Rijn (Rembrandt), and 21st century girl Amy Dale, this is shaping up to be a lovely combination of historical novel with a quasi-Changing Rooms slant, and a smidgeon of Joanna Trollope thrown in for good measure.

Reminds me of Michael Frayn’s Headlong, and I suspect that it stems from the current trend in novels about Dutch art. However, as far as I can tell, neither Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever, or Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, are set partly in modern day Hull!

Hmm… there’s a hint of Philippa Gregory here too….

Verdict: Haddock review

Buy it: Amazon link