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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Twenty Fragments of a
Ravenous Youth

Guo Xiaolu

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To purchase Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth

Title: Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth
Author: Guo Xiaolu
Genre: Novel
Written: (2000) (Eng. 2008)
Length: 167 pages
Original in: (Chinese)
Availability: Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth - US
20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth - UK
Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth - Canada
  • Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is based on a "completely different version" of Guo's 2000 novel 芬芳的37.2℃, translated by Rebecca Morris and Pamela Casey

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Our Assessment:

B : quick, light tour of contemporary Beijing (and a little more)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
New Statesman . 24/1/2008 Alastair Sooke
The NY Sun . 11/8/2008 Laura Collins-Hughes
San Francisco Chronicle . 17/8/2008 Chanan Tigay
The Scotsman . 19/1/2008 Tom Adair
Sunday Times . 6/1/2008 Hugo Barnacle
Sydney Morning Herald . 14/3/2008 James Bradley
The Telegraph . 19/1/2008 James Hawes
The Times . 24/1/2008 Neel Mukherjee
TLS . 11/1/2008 Zoe Strimpel

  Review Consensus:

  Generally liked it

  From the Reviews:
  • "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. (…) 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 (…). The result is impressionistic, and often deliberately banal, with riffs on different brands of noodles and soy sauce." - Alastair Sooke, New Statesman

  • "(A) slender book that bears the hallmarks of so many first novels: tentativeness, clumsiness, transparent autobiography. (...) The book itself suffers from a peculiar problem; there is a hybrid feeling about it. (...) Ms. Guo says she wanted the English version to capture the sense of Fenfang's "slangy, raw Chinese," but in this it largely fails -- whether because of the translation, because she decided to substantially rework the book once it was in English, or both. (It is British English, which adds a thin additional layer of otherness for the American reader.)" - Laura Collins-Hughes, The New York Sun

  • "(T)he book wisely steers clear of politics for the most part, focusing instead on Fenfang's personal journey. The problem, as the work's title suggests, is that her journey is highly fragmentary. (...) The story doesn't gain momentum and, as such, sometimes falls short of the emotional resonance it seeks to achieve. (...) Even so, the book remains a lively and often funny coming-of-age story." - Chanan Tigay, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "As novels go it's a curate's egg. If you want a picture of China today as an embryonic industrial giant, or a crash course in Beijing slang (for instance "second breast" means mistress) then here is the ideal instructive novel for auto-didacts." - Tom Adair, The Scotsman

  • "Her tough, fed-up persona is oddly engaging, and her world is a comic one. (…) The ravenousness of the title is not entirely to do with the youthful quest for truth and beauty. Fenfang is always hungry and the novel is good on food: noodles, carp’s-head broth, pork and chive dumplings, McDonald’s (horrible to the Chinese mind, but there’s air-con in the awful summer heat and it’s one of the few places in Beijing you can sit down). The story is not so much a slice of life as a sliver, but good things do come in slivers -- Parma ham, smoked salmon or truffle-shavings, say. Xiaolu’s work is that sort of treat." - Hugo Barnacle, Sunday Times

  • "It would be tempting to describe Fenfang's attitudes as universal but it may well be they are, like the effusion of youth culture that produced Ginsberg and Kerouac in the US in the 1950s and 1960s, at least in part a product of their particular historical moment, a set of experiences peculiar to those generations fortunate enough to come of age in moments of great social and economic possibility. But whether universal or not, there is something thrilling in the rush of youth and the energy that Guo's novel captures and in its portrait of a nation and a society in the throes of remaking itself into something new." - James Bradley, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "Yes, the book tastes as Chinese as chilli and garlic and Eight Dragons sauce, but it’s essentially a pure and bracing blast of universal youth. This is a rites-of-passage story told in snapshots, the self-realisation of a country girl, Fenfang, desperate to escape the faceless immensity of the Chinese countryside. (…) You may find this kind of heady selfenactment intensely irritating or utterly irresistible. I loved it. It shines with the utterly blameless, scarily fragile arrogance of youth itself, the absolute certainty that death is better than middle age." - James Hawes, The Telegraph

  • "Guo has a nice line in deadpan humour and a nifty little script of a short film is inserted into the novel (narrated in what could have been called "Chapters" but "Fragments" sounds more cool, I suppose). (…) It is funny and melancholy, scintillatingly observed, and has a very big heart, but is some distance from her achievement in Dictionary." - Neel Mukherjee, The Times

  • "Structurally, 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth isn't just a novel -- it is something like a screenplay too. (...) Xiaolu Guo has a light touch and her novel is fresh and readable. But, as its title suggests, it is an ephemeral work. In seeking to capture the moments that make up a life, she somewhat misses the life, and we are left hungry." - Zoe Strimpel, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth Fenfang Wang presents twenty episodes from her life, centred around the decade she lives in Beijing. A peasant girl, she fled her hometown for Beijing when she was seventeen and took a variety of odd jobs before finally settling in to life as a movie extra, at age twenty-one -- the age, she decides, when her youth began.
       Her village had a single "shaky TV set", standing in the village leader's house but shared by all, as well as a single book, The Adventures of the Shadow Samurai, which "was like the local encyclopedia". Beijing offers a completely different world, but Fenfang still has difficulty finding contentment:

Whenever I went out into the street, I would find others living positively and happily. They firmly believed in their lives, while I was always drifting and believed in nothing.
       For a while she lives with her Chinese boyfriend and his family, and even after she leaves him he isn't completely able to let her go, making for some unpleasant scenes. She also takes up with an American for a while, but he returns to the States to complete his degree, and though they stay in touch it seems a hopeless romance. Her extra-lifestyle also has its limitations, and she finds that: "Beijing was moving forwards like an express train, but my life was going nowhere." But she is encouraged to write a script (and one of the book's chapters is, in its entirety, a film scenario), and that eventually does allow her to move on to the next stage (and setting) of her life.
       A short, quick novel, Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth offers some insightful scenes presenting contemporary Beijing and China, from Fenfang describing her cockroach-infested apartment to the transformation of her hometown from Ginger Hill Village to Great Ginger Township. And there's the Haidan McDonald's, opposite Book City:
     McDonald's, you couldn't call it food they sold there, but they had three things you won't find in other restaurants in Beijing: 1) clean floors; 2) toilets with paper; 3) frosty air-conditioning.
       The novel doesn't have too much of a fragmentary feel to it, and the chapters are quite entertaining and well-written. The whole doesn't quite make the most of all the parts, as Guo skips and skims over much too much, but it's an agreeable enough read while it lasts.

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Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth: Reviews: Guo Xiaolu: Other books by Guo Xiaolu under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Chinese literature
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       Chinese-British author Guo Xiaolu (郭小橹) was born in 1973. She has published books written in both Chinese and English, and also directed several films.

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