Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang (translated from the Chinese by Julia Lovell, et al.)
Published by Penguin, 2016 (first published in 1972)
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
The title story in this collection promises to be ‘gripping’ and ‘intensely atmospheric’. I’m not sure those descriptors put readers in the right frame of mind for what they’re really going to get, which is five of the quietest, most understated slice-of-life stories I’ve ever read.
Set in post-war China, they all play out against the backdrop of political, financial, and social unrest, but these wider issues are never the focus of the narrative. Instead, Chang uses them as a catalyst to shine a light on the entirely domestic affairs of love, family, and friendship. By doing so, she examines the idea (albeit subtly) that it’s the quiet, mundane interactions of everyday life that occupy the greatest part of people’s focus and attention – even in times of great unrest.
As a collection, the stories do work well together, as each of them is concerned to a greater or lesser extent with the role of women within Chinese society, class divides, national identity, and the post-war shift from a traditional patriarchal society towards a more liberal, Westernised way of living. It was the translation itself that became a stumbling block, however. Given how many stylistic choices are necessary when converting prose from one language to another, I found it very odd that Penguin chose to compile stories that have all been translated by a different person. With six people in all having worked on the conversion from Chinese, there is a jarring inconsistency to the narrative voice, which reads as dry and pragmatic in one story, and evocative and flowery in the next. I strongly suspect that newly commissioned, cohesive translations would have worked better.
I can’t say I got a huge amount of enjoyment out of reading this book. With very little plot to grapple with, and an uneven writing style, it was difficult to feel any kind of emotional connection to the characters. That said, I was consistently intrigued by the themes Chang was touching on; there were some fantastic passages dotted throughout (with particularly good use of imagery); and I’m willing to give her some benefit of the doubt where the erratic translation is concerned. Perhaps I’d have better luck with one of her novels.
If you’d like to read Lust, Caution, you can pick up a copy from Book Depository by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!