Trigger warning for rape.
Even though Sheng Keyi’s Northern Girls (translated by Shelly Bryant) is bookended by descriptions of protagonist Xiaohong’s larger-than-usual breasts, Xiaohong is more than her anatomy—no matter what the numerous men who ogle or try to trick her think. None of these men seem to learn how complicated she is or how she operates in a city that doesn’t seem to want her around. I daresay readers will be surprised, as I was, even though we spend more than 300 pages with her, at how Xiaohong constantly rises back up after tragedy and adversity. The woman is a goddamn phoenix.
After her sister discovers that sixteen-year-old Xiaohong has been having an affair with her brother-in-law, Xiaohong departs for the megacity of Shenzhen with her best friend to make a new life for herself. Once the pair arrive in the city, it seems like they’ve stepped into a dangerous comedy of errors. First, there is the fact that there is a thin line (often perforated) between having a “respectable” job and sex work. At several places that Xiaohong and Sijiang end up, women do both to make money. In fact, at some of the places they work—like a salon/massage parlor or a karaoke bar—every customer just assumes that the women they find working there do both. A couple of times Xiaohong accidentally does sex work when her partners offer her money after the act; it turns out that Xiaohong just likes to have sex.
It isn’t until Xiaohong lands a job at a cheap-ish hotel that her luck starts to turn. Where before, she had to deal with government bureaucracy (designed to keep people from migrating around China where possible) and men who think she’s a sex worker, the hotel offers a chance to build up some capital and space to think about a future. The first half of the book is all about struggle, the second is about the possibility of moving up in the world. That said, there is always the possibility that something will send Xiaohong back to the ranks of shampoo girls, massage girls, and sex workers. There’s also the fact that Xiaohong’s large breasts often mean that she’s only viewed as an object by most of the men in her world; very few people see Xiaohong as a person because of those breasts.
Along with the themes of sexism and sexuality, Northern Girls often meditates on the theme of cheapness. Even though China is supposed to be at least somewhat communist, it’s clear that in Shenzhen, the name of the game is to make as much money as possible at whatever business one is running as cheaply as possible. Salaries are low and docked for ridiculous reasons. Jobs are held tenuously and often easily lost. Because it’s hard to make money honestly, sex work sometimes becomes necessary or desirable to women who don’t want to work in drudgery. It also means that Xiaohong has no scruples about scams and very little loyalty to her employers. Why would she? They rarely do her favors. Thankfully, Xiaohong had good luck in finding friends and rescuers when she really needs them. Xiaohong is loyal to people who do her a good turn. And, it often seems, that having connections is the only way to get ahead in the wild, cutthroat city of Shenzhen.
One quick note about the translation. Bryant does a very good job translating, but there were some passages of dialogue that seemed a little flat or unrealistic. I’m not sure sure if this is an artifact of the writing style or the author’s occasional clumsiness with dialogue. On the one hand, this book was written for a Chinese-language audience, who will have different expectations and tastes in literature. On the other, I might just be overly picky. I’m also not sure if I misunderstood the ending (I am almost positive I am) because of the translation was unclear or if (more likely) I’m missing cultural references that would be clear to someone reading this book in the original who is more versed with Chinese-language culture and literature than I am. This is the tricky thing about reading books in translation. It’s sometimes hard to fully understand what’s going on, either because of its foreignness or because the translator needed to take a firmer hand to make the author understood in another language—but that’s a whole other blog post.
Readers, I inhaled this book. Even though there were parts that made me flinch or fret for Xiaohong, I was hooked by her story. She’s not like anyone I’ve ever met in fiction before. She has no over all goals for her future, like so many of the strivers I see in Western fiction. It seems like all she wants is security and something a little better than what she has. She also bucks the expectations of her hypocritical society when it comes to sex. Xiaohong is frequently slut shamed, yet men are almost expected to be highly sexual. I also loved the way that she cares for the people who were kind to her. Xiaohong’s friendship is a powerful thing in a society where one needs every bit of help one can get, but her kindness goes beyond that, I think. Xiaohong’s caring for her friends—especially her female friends—is not about her getting ahead. Her friendship is genuine and I deeply admire that.