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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

My South Seas Sleeping Beauty

Zhang Guixing

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Title: My South Seas Sleeping Beauty
Author: Zhang Guixing
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 208 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: My South Seas Sleeping Beauty - US
My South Seas Sleeping Beauty - UK
My South Seas Sleeping Beauty - Canada
My South Seas Sleeping Beauty - India
  • A Tale of Memory and Longing
  • Chinese title: 我思念的長眠中的南國公主
  • Translated by Valerie Jaffee

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Our Assessment:

A- : appealingly fanciful, even as it seems uncertain of which story it is trying to tell

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Taipei Times . 13/5/2007 Bradley Winterton

  From the Reviews:
  • "And this is a very literary book. A near-contemporary exoticism is contrasted with an older one, the Asia drawn by Maugham, Conrad, Kipling and Chinese novelist Yu Dafu (.....) This is a gripping as well as a probing book. At times it reads like the intelligent man's Harry Potter. Maybe Zhang has failed to distance himself sufficiently from his own childhood (though who can tell ?) -- but even if he has it doesn't matter." - Bradley Winterton, Taipei Times

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:

       My South Seas Sleeping Beauty begins with the narrator noting that:

     My little sister's death was the subject of all sorts of stories.
       He briefly sums up first one, then another, then another -- and even then admits: "Then there is another, much stranger story", and even if that is the true one he admits: "But some people tell it differently". It certainly doesn't sound like the reader can expect much certainty along the rest of the way, but despite the open questions and mysteries that also continue to crop up, My South Seas Sleeping Beauty offers a surprisingly satisfying picture of an out-of-the way and not entirely paradisiacal idyll and the people who inhabit and visit it.
       The narrator is Su Qi, born in a remote part of Malaysia, in a town that: "existed solely to serve its wealthy neighbor", the tiny but extremely wealthy Sultanate of Brunei. His father was very bright and had gone to study in Taiwan, and then settled in this place, where he lived a comfortable and decadent life, famous for his well-attended extravagant and wild parties. He has a partner in decadence, Lin Yuan -- whose daughter Chunxi Su Qi falls in love with.
       Su Qi's mother is, in turn, obsessed with gardening. She plants all sorts of exotic flowers and plants, and builds an elaborate labyrinth in their gardens. Su Qi mentions early on that she realised one could only cultivate this South Seas land:
by burning away the wild weeds throughout the year. The natives called this the "burning of blossoms." The weeds were tenacious and wide-ranging enough that no one could ever burn them all, and, as soon as the first spring breeze blew they would start spreading again., so one or two burnings were never enough, and the "burning of blossoms" had to be repeated year after year. Only this way, it seemed, could the bad seeds and corrupt growth be rooted out entirely.
       Given the prevalence of bad seeds and corrupt growth (of all different sort) it's only fitting that the book finds its way to an impressive conflagration. But that's only one part of a novel that grows as wildly and in as many different directions as some of the more exotic plants and weeds in it.
       Just like Zhang begins the novel with a handful of alternate versions of the same event, My South Seas Sleeping Beauty as a whole never seems certain of what it wants to be. Between the wild parties, the harsh father, and the exotic local Dayak population -- both a danger and yet also the source of many tempting, beautiful young things -- it is filled with fantastic episodes. Yet dramatic events are often almost self-contained, related and then largely without the consequences one might expect -- though, in fact, the consequences lie not quite dormant, with a morass of connexions and unexpected twists only eventually revealed.
       The three-part novel takes an odd detour to Taiwan when Su Qi goes to study there. The descriptions (especially of dorm life) are as rich, but make for an odd contrast to the Malaysian scenes. Su Qi also falls for a girl here, Keyi, though Chunxi also remains on his mind.
       Events back in Borneo also lead him back there, but from the death of his father to the truth about the Chunxi he had known to why Lin Yuan and his father had settled down there, much that appeared self-evident in fact turns out to have a completely different explanation (if it is not downright unknowable). It's hard working with so much uncertainty, but for the most part Zhang manipulates the facts effectively. The exotic locale and some of the outrageous behaviour certainly help.
       Along with the Dayas there was also a communist threat, and even these politics (as well as the ostensibly devout revelers from Brunei) are cleverly tied into the story. Wild and often vicious animals -- and the wild flowers -- complete a very vivid picture.
       There is much defiling in the novel. There's an obsession with virgins (Lin Yuan frequently inspecting the good (yes, with his fingers) to make sure the girls he's saving for the hoped-for prominent visitor are still pure), and both Su Qi's father and mother have given into temptation (though dad strays considerably more extensively). Mom eventually admits:
She told me that all her relentless burning of blossoms in the garden had been her attempt to create a swath of pure land, just as she had come to Borneo with my father in the hopes of finding a paradise on earth, never dreaming that her "pure land" would become the dominion of hedonism and debauchery or that her "paradise on earth" would turn out to be a land planted with the seeds of misery.
       Indeed, already the young Su Qi had seen what his father was capable of, describing -- in the somewhat overheated language that he occasionally resorts to (generally to decent effect):
     At the time, I had been shocked to learn that the garden, as dark and as sacred a place as a womb, had been defiled in this way, made to serve as just one more labyrinthine vagina.
       Zhang seems to have conceived more ideas than could plausibly be fit into any one novel, but that didn't stop him. Surprisingly, he almost pulls it off. The book can be frustrating in its distractions and blind alleys, but there's enough to pull it together by the end to make for a satisfying whole, and there's much that's related along the way that is quite spectacular.
       There are quite a few imperfections to My South Seas Sleeping Beauty, but it is still well worthwhile.

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My South Seas Sleeping Beauty: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese-Malaysian author Zhang Guixing (張貴興) was born in Sarawak, Malaysia in 1956. He moved to Taiwan in 1976, and still lives there.

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