Xiaolu Guo’s “20 fragments of a Ravenous Youth” chronicles the life of Fenfang Wang, a 21-year-old girl who leaves the monotony of her village to start a new life in one of the most fast-paced cities in the world, Beijing. Determined to live a modern life but ill prepared for it, Fenfang struggles to make her dream come true, after having travelled 1,800 miles for it.
Originally written in Chinese in 2000 and translated into English in 2008, the novel doesn’t have a clear beginning or an end. Rather, it consists of a series of disjoined chapters and thus, feels more like listening to a friend sharing some memories with you in no particular order.
The book is essentially a compilation of little moments that make up life. You get to know about Fenfang’s attempts to get a job as a film extra—she is the 6,787th person on the wait list for the job—her run-in with the police, estrangement with her parents, and financial struggles. Fenfang eventually gets around to writing scripts of her own, some of which are included in the novel.
But the story’s main theme is Fenfang’s failed relationships and how she desperately wants to be able to live independently of men. Fenfang is sardonic and detached, but full of dreams and is wise beyond her age. Her experiences are relatable and make her endearing, despite her sullen exterior.
20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth isn’t a happy story. It’s filled with pain, longing, and the struggle to survive in a city that doesn’t allow a moment’s rest. But the melancholic undertone is what makes the book irresistible. You want to know how things turn out for Fenfang and if she can indeed get some of “those shiny things” in life. Guo doesn’t sugar coat the trials and tribulations of daily life neither does she neatly wrap up loose ends which lends the slim novel a realistic feel.
Apart from Fenfang, her miseries and the zeal to power through, you get to know quite a lot about Beijing too. The city comes alive through Guo’s descriptions. She also writes about Chinese culture and lifestyle thus giving us a window into one of the world’s most populous countries. In these travel restricted times, it’s the next best thing to actually being there.
Another fun thing about Guo’s writing is that she leaves you with many quotable quotes. The book has many little gems that will have your scribbling on your notebook as you read it. All in all, it’s a wonderful little story, brilliantly written, that takes your mind off things for a while. Isn’t that a good enough reason to pick up Guo’s debut novel? I’d think so.