Katherine is an American, one of the first to arrive in China when they begin to open up to the world in the 1980’s. Zebra is a Chinese woman who has had a tragically difficult life; she’s spent her childhood laboring with peasants and being regularly raped by her supervisor. She’s been transferred to a city temporarily to work in a factory and there she meets Katherine, her English teacher. All of Katherine’s students are fascinated with her, attracted to her, and eventually fall in love with her, especially the men. China isn’t easy on foreigners, though, and Katherine and Zebra are on course to learn that in one of the worst ways.
Ever since I read Pearl of China a few months ago, I’ve been eager to read more by Anchee Min. I got this secondhand a while ago and since it’s her first novel, I thought it was a good place to step back to and start again with her work. Unfortunately, I think I was wrong, because I simply didn’t like this book very much at all.
Perhaps I’m just being a little too prudish, but it bothered me how much the Chinese characters took advantage of Katherine. They played on her innocence regularly, knowing she wouldn’t understand, and it felt to me like they were leering at her constantly. I can understand a lot of the fascination on both their behalves, but the whole book just gave off too much of a sexual vibe, like they were constantly taking advantage of Katherine and sometimes one another. I didn’t really like Katherine, I felt she was childish and too susceptible to temptation, and when she tried to adopt a child I just got frustrated. I didn’t think she was at all mature enough to take care of a little girl. To top it off, some things were discussed frequently which in my opinion should probably be kept a little more quiet.
It’s a shame because I think it could have been an interesting book; after all, Zebra is learning a lot about what was kept from her during the Communist regime in China. I think her mind could have been expanded in different ways, rather than solely through this sort of obsessive sexuality. It definitely didn’t live up to my expectations. I didn’t even like the way it was written, which tells me that Min’s writing has advanced quite a bit in the past fifteen years. Some of the strange comparisons stick out in my head; she compared cracked lips to potato chips, for example, which didn’t really help me visualize anything besides a person with potato chips for lips.
In the end Katherine was a pretty big disappointment, but it hasn’t put me off reading more by Anchee Min. I think I’ll try some of her novels set in an earlier China; since I enjoyed Pearl of China, I may get on with those a bit better.
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