It became clear to Jia Jia that Chen Hang must not have considered, not even for a moment, that such a place was improper for a death.
These are the thoughts that surface for Jia Jia mere moments after she finds her husband dead in their bathtub. As Jia Jia awaits an ambulance, she contemplates what could have happened. Callous as it seems, these thoughts set the tone for the novel as a whole. An Yu’s Braised Pork is a novel of restrictions, societal and personal, and what it takes to break them down.
Now a widow and no longer the stay-at-home wife of a wealthy man in Beijing, Jia Jia is free to paint, earn a living, and sell her apartment. She begins a dalliance with a humble bartender, seeking neither lust nor love but, rather, simple fulfillment. She is never at ease though, haunted by the crude image of a ‘fish-man’ that her husband left the day he died. She tries to bring the fish-man to life in her own art, but fails. Like her many attempts to paint water in the past, she cannot find meaning in her iterations of the fish-man, only experiencing him in dream-like states. She decides she needs to sojourn to Tibet, where her husband visited and relayed a similar dream of the fish-man. The novel shifts from cosmopolitan, crowded Beijing to a humble Tibetan village, and Jia Jia inches ever closer to an answer.
Woven through the plain, direct prose of Beijing life and Jia Jia’s innermost thoughts are scenes in a ‘world of water’. Jia Jia finds herself submerged in darkness, the fish-man her only company, and each experience leaves her more puzzled than the last. These journeys, while beautifully written and evocative, are not what resonate with readers of Braised Pork. Rather, it is how this simple image of a mysterious fish-man forges relationships old and new, and how it bolsters Jia Jia’s sense of self.
Our protagonist remains elusive though, her life story doled out in breadcrumbs, hidden behind barriers of shame and resentment. We know that Jia Jia and her husband married not for love, but to have a family. We know that she was a painter, and we know too of her broken family and her lack of life direction. But what An Yu importantly brings to life is not only Jia Jia’s interior but, also, her societal context. This includes the influence her family has over her life, even though she lives independently, as well as the attitudes of acquaintances and strangers. Simple examples further anchor Jia Jia for readers and help us understand the world she lives in. Buying gifts for Chinese New Year despite dire financial straits, answering and not answering texts, trying to lean on charm and influence to get what she wants—each of these inherent flaws bring Jia Jia closer to us.
More than anything, the novel shows us how Jia Jia cannot move forward without her past dragging behind. Her tireless search for the fish-man is fueled by this fact and is accompanied by Jia Jia’s continued search for purpose in the world. A particularly meaningful scene features a reunion between Jia Jia and her estranged father, in which they dine on the titular braised pork and uncover secrets kept under wraps for a generation. The scene spurs us to wonder, how much can be solved by open, honest communication? We wonder, how many times is it just too hard to do so?
Aspects of the novel, at times, feel disjointed. Things are neither told in the order we expect nor do we get, many times, explanations for the questions we have. Jia Jia can be frustrating as a protagonist too, her life of privilege often making her blind to the cares and concerns of others. She stands out as haughty and somewhat entitled during her tour of Tibet, demanding her tour guide and other people she meets to help along her journey. Certain plot threads aren’t as neatly woven as we’d hope, though this may or may not be a detractor depending on your perspective. Characters come and go, as if mirroring Jia Jia’s blase attitudes. But the culmination of the novel, which I cannot spoil for you today, is all too rewarding. And even if we ourselves will never experience the world of water, much of Jia Jia’s journey will ring true. We all battle restrictions in one way or another, some of which the world places on us; but the most difficult ones remain those we place on ourselves
By An Yu
Published April 14, 2020