Strange Beasts of China, by Yan Ge

Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China (translated by Jeremy Tiang) is a strange trip. A writer in the city of Yong’an writes stories for a local newspaper that feature different varieties of “beast,” humanoid creatures with distinctive features and mysterious customs. These beasts live alongside the humans of Yong’an, usually in little enclaves where they can be left in peace. The ones who are unlucky enough to be desirable to humans—for their beauty, biddableness, ability to work hard—become commodities. And yet, our narrator writes love stories that feature beasts and humans falling in love with each other.

The chapters in this book cover what seems to be a few months in the narrator’s life as she struggles with the loss of a good friend, lingering questions about her deceased mother, the death of a hugely influential but troubling professor, and much more. Each chapter begins with a short outline of a new kind of beast. And, in each chapter, our narrator meets a representative of this kind of beast—sorrowful beasts, flourishing beasts, heartsick beasts, etc.—these meetings, our narrator’s interactions with her friends and family and others, and all the other things going on in her life lead her to start wondering about her lost, mysterious father and what makes us human and them beasts. Are we really so different because of a few physical features and varying lifespans? It also leads her to ask who (and what) she really is.

The structure of Strange Beasts of China was as interesting to me as the developing plot. This book blurs the boundaries between linked short stories and novels. It’s more coherent than a series of linked stories, but more episodic than a novel. It’s the kind of book where readers need to pay close attention to the details, because they’re clues about what’s going on behind the scenes. The details bring us to those big questions about what makes us human, about what we owe to the other creatures we share the planet with, and whether love is stronger than greed. This book is absolutely brilliant.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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