Braised Pork is a moving debut from Beijing native, An Yu. She manages to capture the suffering of isolation that exists both in, and out of relationships. The connections we have as humans is also under observation here, with characters seemingly drifting through their lives, crossing paths along the way.
Jia Jia suffers a profound loss when her husband is found to have drowned in a few inches of bathwater. Although the marriage was born out of convenience, Jia Jia relied heavily on her husband for guidance. It’s now that she must now find her own way in life and deal with these new challenges, as well as the consequences they bring.
It’s worth noting that while An Yu is a Chinese native, she received her degree in M.F.A at New York University. This has given her the confidence to write the book in English, instead of relying on a translator.
Braised Pork or Fish?
The title comes from the connecting meal that Jia Jia has with her father, who she’s been in little contact with over the last few years. He cooks braised pork and reminds Jia Jia that it was her favourite meal as a young girl.
Otherwise, it isn’t much mentioned.
Although setting up as a mystery, the book quickly navigates more towards Jia Jia’s life as a widow, rather than finding out exactly why her husband died.
I say exactly because it’s alluded to but never clearly defined. This could potentially frustrate readers.
A Bold Journey
I found the style of writing to be incredibly unique. It blends the reality of everyday life into the dark, surrealist nature of an alternate world; one that’s accessible only in certain states.
This serves to boost the writing above that of an average family drama and give it new life, similar to Murata’s Earthlings.
There are times when the writing fails to add any special wow-factor, becoming muddied in the midway point. It’s only upon approaching the Tibetan village that the plot begins to compensate for this.
Jia Jia shows several moments of vulnerability and weakness, which gives her a supportive motivation. As time passes, it’s clear that she is responsible for her actions, regardless of what her family think is best.
Despite clunky changes in environments, the difference between industrialised Beijing and mountainous Tibet is stark.
The hazy polluted fog and a struggling property market are traded for clear water ponds and fresh flowers. Tibetan myths take hold, and Jia Jia is drawn deeper into a fantasy world which can never be defined as real or imaginary.
The theme of loneliness, especially in womanhood, is loud and clear throughout.
Jia Jia’s family push her towards finding somebody safe to settle down with. However, Jia Jia would rather begin a relationship with Leo, a local bar owner.
It’s in these heart-warming moments of chatting at the bar that Yu’s writing shines. Bar lights flicker, couples begin to chatter, and a bond begins to form.
The character of Jia Jia transforms as the novel continues on. She goes from submissive wife to troubled unconfident artist, all the way to having the confidence to love again. This journey of development is the underlining factor in this extraordinary adventure; One that includes fish-man sketches and esoteric wood carvings centred on a possible alternative world.
Having lived in Beijing, it always adds to the experience. Recognising train stations and shopping malls grounds the book in a real-world reality.
Braised Pork is definitely a book you should pick up if you want a unique experience of Chinese mythical fantasy and reality-based drama.
Although the writing is a little bland at times, the overall plot serves to keep your attention until the closing pages. Not startling, but also not bad for a debut author writing in a second language.