Strange Beasts of China certainly delivers on the ‘strange’ suggested by its very title and premise. This novel consists of 9 interconnected chapters, each one presenting us with a self-contained story about a certain type of ‘beast’. Strange Beasts of China reads like a contemporary and unique bestiary in which, through the eyes of our nameless narrator who is a cryptozoologist, we learn the origins, appearances and habits of different types of beasts. While Strange Beasts of China will certainly appeal to fans of surrealists authors such as Helen Oyeyemi, Yukiko Motoya, and Hiromi Kawakami, if you are the type of reader who prefers character-driven stories, well, you might be better off skipping this one.
Strange Beasts of China takes place in China in the fictive Yong’an City where humans and beasts cohabit alongside one another. Relations between the two groups are far from amicable and many humans harbour stigma against beasts, who are treated as second-class citizens and have limited rights and freedoms. Our narrator, who studies and attempts to classify beasts, is more open-minded than most and, if anything, is drawn to beasts. Over the course of the novel, she comes into contact with different types of beasts, including sorrowful beasts, joyous beasts, sacrificial beasts, impasse beats, flourishing beasts, thousand league beats, heartsick beasts, prime beasts, and returning beasts. Time and again our narrator has to confront how non-human beasts are, despite their often human-like appearance (some have green bellies or ears shaped differently from humans but more often than not they physically resemble us).
Beasts are exploited, oppressed, feared, and or hated. For some beasts it is in their nature to lead parasitic lifestyles, for example, to ‘feed’ a human’s emotions. Others are doomed to die in a sacrificial fashion.
Over the course of these chapters, the author interrogates her narrator’s notion of humanity which will in turn make us question our ideas of what makes someone a human. I was intrigued by the beasts the author had imagined and I found her matter-of-fact weirdness to make Yong’an all the more believable. I wish the narrator had been more engaging as I found her voice strangely removed, and in those moments where she does experience heightened emotions, she verged on being hysterical. So, I either found her too passive or too melodramatic. There seemed to be no in-between. The men in her life, such as her professor and a peer of hers, well, they too acted in a rather overdramatic fashion, the professor especially. The way they spoke to each other or some of their responses were simply off-key, and perhaps I would have preferred if their interactions had been dialled back a little.
I also wish that Strange Beasts of China could have had more tonal variety as I found most of the chapters to be little other than depressing.
Still, this was an undoubtedly creative novel and I appreciated its dreamlike ambience and general strangeness.
my rating: ★★★☆☆