Xiaolu Guo's 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is surprising - but perhaps that's what you would expect from someone who's lived such an unusual life. Born in 1973, Xiaolu was brought up in a small fishing village in south China, but escaped to study at the Beijing Film Academy when she was just 18. After graduating, she wrote several novels to supplement her income as a film-maker. By 2002 she had written five, and moved to London on a scholarship.
Her first book written in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, features "Z", a naive Chinese peasant girl who travels to London and falls in love with an Englishman. She speaks a cracked form of English ("I am alien," she says upon arriving at "Heathlow Airport" - "like Hollywood film Alien, I live in another planet, with funny looking and strange language"). The book was a rampant success, shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction last year.
In fact, 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth was Xiaolu's first published novel. Its heroine is Fenfang, a spirited, twentysomething woman who leaves her claustrophobic village, full of halfwit peasants who do nothing but dig up sweet potatoes, and heads for Beijing, where she dreams of making the big time as an actress or a screenwriter.
Written in the first person, the book is divided into 20 chapters (or, more accurately, snippets), each illustrated with a photograph by Xiaolu or a still from one of her films depicting city life. Fenfang doggedly battles to ditch her yokel past and become a "Beijinger", whatever the cost. She applies for work as a film extra and is given a number - Extra No 6,787 ("So I was the 6,787th person in Beijing wanting a job in the film and TV industry") - before accepting a load of dead-end parts, including executioner's assistant, house cleaner, steamed-bun seller and woman on bridge pushing a bicycle. At the same time she drifts between lovers, one of whom, Xiaolin, becomes bitter after she dumps him.
So what makes the book surprising? Xiaolu likes to trample over western assumptions about China. In interviews she sounds fierce, lambasting the sort of Chinese novel, usually written by a woman, that does well outside her homeland. "Chinese women novelists have somehow been symbolic of the Chinese traditional culture," she has said. "They write about bound feet, concubines, about these traditional Chinese women's lives that are symbolic of old China, and which can be really exotic [for western readers]."
20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth could not be more different. In a note at the end, Xiaolu describes the challenge of translating the speech of "a young Chinese girl who lives a chaotic life and speaks in slangy, raw Chinese". But Rebecca Morris and Pamela Casey have done a sterling job. Fenfang speaks with quick-witted, colloquial sass, a little like someone who has watched a lot of Sex and the City.
She pours scorn on her former life in the sticks ("In my village, people lived like insects, like worms, like slugs hanging on the back door of the house"). And when Xiaolin tells her, "You don't look like an actress. You're not snooty enough," she becomes even more withering about the world around her, especially the socialist agenda of the Chinese government.
Her rebellious, devil-may-care irreverence for communism is refreshing, and provides the most heavyweight theme in an otherwise flimsy book: that of the struggle for individuation within a society that prizes collectivism above personal success. "She's no good, that girl," one drone-like policeman says to another about Fenfang. "Much too individualistic." Fenfang is "ravenous" to make a name for herself; however, in a sweetly literal touch, she is also always hungry for spicy hotpot and pork dumplings prepared with chives.
Not a great deal happens in this novel, but then, I guess, that is the point. Xiaolu set out to write a splintered, postmodern narrative about a drifter suffering ennui in a "vast" and "messy" city ("Beijing was a city for Sisyphus - you could push and push and push, but ultimately that stone was bound to roll back on you"). The result is impressionistic, and often deliberately banal, with riffs on different brands of noodles and soy sauce.
In this respect, 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is a nihilistic, Generation X-style manifesto for existential posers in Beijing. Maturity is not one of its strengths, but don't let that put you off: its impudent, hand-on-hip attitude cannot fail to charm.