Li Jing was born in the United States and spent the first ten years of his life there. His father, a Chinese college professor, had come to America to start a new life, but he decided to return to China with his son after the sudden death of Li Jing’s mother. Two decades later, Li Jing is a hardworking Shanghai investment banker, head of his own firm, and he barely remembers the English he learned as a child.
That will change when a traumatic brain injury leaves Li Jing suffering from an unusual form of Broca’s aphasia. He loses all ability to speak or write in Chinese, although he can still understand what is said to him in that language, but he has retained the uncanny ability to express himself in simple English. That his wife and young son speak not a word of English is a problem. Perhaps more threatening for the longer term, Li Jing knows that his business will certainly fail unless he regains the ability to maintain his intimate connections within the Shanghai business community – something impossible to do for a man who can no longer make himself understood in Chinese.
Desperate for the breakthrough her Chinese doctors are unlikely to achieve, Meiling (Li Jing’s wife), agrees to bear the expense of an American neurologist to come to Shanghai to work with her husband for a number of weeks. Newly divorced Oklahoma doctor, Rosalyn Neal, looking for any kind of fresh start, accepts the job. Rosalyn Neal, however, is prepared neither for the energy-sapping complications of trying to make herself understood in a country whose language she does not speak, nor for the challenge presented by her new patient.
Li Jing, unable to speak Chinese, and refusing to speak English, remains silent for so long that Rosalyn begins to talk about herself just to fill the silence in his hospital room. Something in her story stirs Li Jing’s own memories of his American childhood and the two grow closer despite Li Jing’s continuing failure to recapture the Chinese language. And almost too late, Meiling realizes she will have to compete for her husband’s affection with the very doctor she brought to Shanghai to help cure him.
The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai, Ruiyan Xu’s debut novel, is an ambitious one in which she explores the importance of language and culture in human relationships. Li Jing loses more than words when he loses his ability to speak Chinese. He can only communicate with his wife in the simplest of terms, completely unable to express in any depth the fears, doubts, and other emotions he feels. Meiling grows weary of the whole process and begins to lose hope and, finally, interest, as her marriage begins to fall apart.
The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai is more, though, than a novel about loss. It explores whether a common language (and the inherent ability to communicate deeply) might be more emotionally important to a relationship than common culture and shared past. It is a novel about misunderstanding, despair, betrayal, forgiveness, and recovery. It is, in fact, a beautifully written first novel that offers an intriguing look into modern Chinese culture and reminds the reader just how important words are.
Rated at: 4.0
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)