Cover of book: A Chinese Affair

Isabelle Li
A Chinese Affair

There are 16 stories in Isabelle Li’s uneven debut collection, A Chinese Affair. Most have been published previously in literary journals and anthologies. The best are moody and slow-burning with moments of startling revelation, while others dawdle in exposition or oddly dreamlike dialogue.

Many of the stories are explicitly connected, with characters reappearing. All, in one way or another, relate to Chinese migration. “A Chinese Affair”, for example, tells of a young Chinese woman in Sydney, married to a condescending older Australian man; in “Fountain of Gratitude” a teenager in China forges lifelong neighbourhood bonds around the end of World War II, and in “Further South” a young woman from mainland China is betrayed by new friends in Singapore.

Secrets – always a delicious theme – abound and most of the stories touch on secret liaisons or longings. One of the most satisfying elements of the book is the way Li’s female characters recognise, and frustrate, orientalist stereotypes; these are women of erotic originality, independence and humour. Her characters are often solitary and are exceptionally attuned to their surroundings and to sensation. This makes for a brooding, contemplative tone and a collection that is heavy on imagery and introspection. At times, the prose is overwrought, but often it is haunting. “Go Troppo” begins: “One can’t escape the past, a shadow behind one’s heels, with altered shapes under different lights.”

The weakest stories in the collection are, for the most part, the longest. Li crafts some exquisite, sometimes shocking scenes (often of cruelty or loss), then allows dramatic tension to sag in-between with long passages of meandering description.

But there is one character – a youngish, Sydney-based Chinese interpreter named Crystal – who appears in a number of the stories and shares some biographical similarities with the author. Li also works in Australia as a translator. Proud, perceptive and at times perverse, Crystal at one point declares: “I do not want to be special. I am not an exotic bird and have no interest in showing off my plumage. I am Crystal, perfect in structure and form, hard and clear in every molecule.”

Crystal is a strange and unpredictable character and her narratives tend to touch on both the thrills, and the frustrations, of self-expression across two languages. Wherever she appears, Li’s stories sing.  SR

Margaret River Press, 340pp, $27

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 16, 2016 as "Isabelle Li, A Chinese Affair".

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Reviewer: SR

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