Review: I Am China by Xiaolu Guo

At first glance, Xiaolu Guo’s new novel, I Am China, seems like a quiet book. British translator Iona Kirkpatrick is handed a stack of correspondence between two Chinese lovers and is given little context other than the documents are somehow related to a famous Chinese musician. But how exciting can a book on translating be? Only one character – the translator – even exists in present time. But Guo is a modern master, proving that the best way to tell the story of a country, a people, and a revolution is through the hearts and voices of two people in love.

The two lovers are Mu, a young woman originally from a farming family in southern China who loves poetry, and Jian, a punk musician who finds himself imprisoned after distributing his manifesto at a show. Life takes them in different directions after Jian's arrest – Mu to the United States and Jian to Europe – and they write letters trying to find one another. As Iona furiously translates their correspondence and diaries, she discovers that theChinese government is working to silence her. She also comes to realize her goal of reuniting the lovers may depend on a single verb translation.

Iona also has a heartbreaking plotline of her own. As she struggles to make sense of her translations, she asks her trusted mentor for help: “Despite all my efforts to make them speak, they remain silent. Or won’t speak to me. What can I do? What am I doing? What’s the point without connection?” and realizes she talking about her own solitary life as much as the lives of her subjects.

Achingly personal, I Am China illuminates the struggles faced by Chinese citizens who attempt to speak freely while also exploring the universal challenges of navigating a long-term relationship. It’s a remarkable book, reminding us of the power of language and one small, persistent voice.