Sunday, February 15, 2009
Red Azalea by Anchee Min
Red Azalea by Anchee Min is a memoir that takes place in China during the 60s and 70s after the Cultural Revolution. The impact of communism on her family is evident when she says very early on in the book that she was already an adult at the age of five. The responsibility of taking care of her younger siblings while her parents served the party ages her quickly. I read her semi-autobiographical novel Katherine about ten years ago and wanted to read this memoir even back then. Although the same story spans a very brief part of Red Azalea, reading the details without the distance, the pretense, that fiction affords makes the events all the more heartbreaking. And that is the one word that comes to mind throughout. As Min’s life moves from place to place, the party telling her where she can best serve, the inevitability of her experiences is so compelling in spite of the predictability of the tragedies to come. Although the book is not written with the now familiar narrative style of most memoirs. The only time Min uses quotation marks is when one of the characters is quoting Chairman Mao. This stylistic affectation is effective and although obvious at first soon becomes as natural as reading dialogue broken into paragraphs and defined with the appropriate punctuation. The author also chooses to name the people not by their Chinese names, although there are exceptions to this. Rather than offering a transliteration of the Chinese names, she calls the characters by their names’ meanings. So her sister is called Coral and a friend Little Green. This makes the memoir perhaps easier to read for an English reading audience so I am not begrudging the necessity of it. I found this book difficult to put down and found the story invading my dreams. A truly compelling and fascinating memoir. As seems to be the norm, the ending is hasty, rushing through six years of living in only a couple of pages. While it affords some closure for the story, I would have preferred either a more inconclusive ending, with perhaps an epilogue describing in slightly more detail her life after Chairman Mao’s death. I am now eager to read more of her books and regret waiting so long to read this wonderful book.