Visions of Paradise

Thursday, December 30, 2004

The Middle Kingdom

There’s a reason why somebody becomes a lifetime reader of science fiction. In my case it probably has a lot to do with love of exotic worlds far removed in space and time from the mundane world in which I live. So when I take a break from science fiction, I generally drift to historical fiction and stories either written in an earlier era or set in a far different land.

Such as China. Although there are more complex reasons why I grew fascinated with China, one important reason is that China offers me many of the same wonders as science fiction offers. So when I originally purchased Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever awhile ago, I was intrigued to find right beside it on the bookstore shelf a novel by her entitled The Middle Kingdom. And the description was just as exciting: a middle-aged American woman visits Beijing with her husband, and so falls in love with the city and the country that she stays behind when her husband returns to America. This was a book I had to buy, especially considering my love of the writing of Andrea Barrett.

The novel opened during the Tiananmen Square Massacre of June, 1989, describing the adventures of the American woman with her Chinese-born (and apparently Chinese-fathered) baby during that troubled time, how her Chinese guardians tried to convince her to return to America for fear of greater disturbances to come–after all, that incident occurred barely a dozen years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, when the Chinese were much less optimistic about the state of their world than they became in the 90s. But in spite of potential danger to herself and her child, she refused to leave since China had become her home. A brave woman indeed, but I wanted to know more about her background. And the author–seemingly knowing she had me hooked already–quickly slipped into a flashback describing the narrator’s arrival in China several years earlier.

Grace had come to China as the wife of a scientist heading a delegation attending a conference on acid rain. While her husband conferred and met with Chinese scientists, she followed the other wives to tourist attractions and planned activities, all chaperoned by a Chinese tour guide who gave them so little leeway they were not even allowed out of the hotel alone. Until Grace befriended a Chinese scientist in the same field as her husband who introduced her to the real China hidden behind the tourist facade, and unwittingly planting the seeds for love of that country which quickly spread into those hollow places in Grace’s heart which had long remained unfulfilled.

When Grace contracts pneumonia and an accompanying high fever, she slips into a fever-induced flashback reliving her entire life story: her unhappy childhood as a misfit, her unhappiness with her family, how she buried herself in eating and deliberate weight gains; her first college experience ending with a failed marriage to a somewhat unbalanced artist; an eventual return to college as the protegee of her second husband, a brilliant-but-fixated lake biologist with whom Grace initially experiences the joy of shared work as his student and love as his wife, but which steadily fade into apathy and the resurgence of her low self-esteem.

And, just as in Ship Fever and The Voyage of the Narwhal, Barrett’s love of natural science fills the book. Not only are both Grace’s husband and her Chinese mentor natural scientists, but she studies it herself during her second time in college, and spends many years assisting her husband in his own research and writing. Science is the foundation shoring up the story, filling the gaps between scenes and occasionally driving the scenes themselves, ultimately as important as the other characters in shaping both the novel and Grace’s place in it.. But while science remains the story’s foundation, it never intrudes on the human interest story which is the author’s main concern.

As The Middle Kingdom progressed, I truly understood Grace and the problems which so determined the course of her life, and I empathized with her feelings of being a misfit at nearly every turn of her life, although not necessarily agreeing with her manner of coping with it. I understood how one’s childhood experiences can totally determine the shape of one’s entire life and appreciated Grace’s inability to pull out of the undertow caused by those experiences.

The Middle Kingdom is an outstanding book, not only because of the Chinese setting which occupied about 3/5 of it, but because of Barrett’s insight and fine writing. Andrea Barrett is my favorite non-genre writer whose fiction should appeal to all readers interested in natural science or the workings of scientists, but ultimately for everybody who enjoys wondrous fiction.

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