Two young people, born in the 1980s, bond over their shared unhappiness – both Li Jiaxi and Cheng Gong come from dysfunctional families and lack parental love. As they grow up, they begin playing amateur detectives, following the tracks of the previous generation to the heart of a mystery, finally discovering the almost unbearable truth about what befell their grandfathers, one the much-beloved director of a hospital, the other a victim of attempted murder who spent decades in a coma. What happened that rainy night in 1967, in the abandoned water tower left behind by German troops? How did a single iron nail have such vastly different impacts on the destinies of these two families? A tragedy lurks behind the glorious façade of the present, and the pair are about to uncover something that perhaps should have stayed buried.
Zhang Yueran has long been the voice of the post-eighties generation of Chinese youth, yet this work marks a sharp departure from her earlier work, which has been compared to a magical bottled garden. Cocoon takes place in a much more realistic vein, in which we see the people who lived through China’s most turbulent period in recent history through the eyes of their children. The Cultural Revolution was not so long ago, yet feels like a completely different era – how are the young people of today’s prosperous, complicated China to process the strife and suffering of those who went before them? Like the strands of a cocoon unraveling, Zhang Yueran lays bare the many layers of modern China’s coming of age, unfolding the struggles and destinies of these families.
The Chinese reviews of this novel have been glowing. Cheng Yongxin, the chief editor of Harvest, said, “Young writers must challenge not just themselves, but also history and memory. Cocoon will surely change the public’s perception of authors born after 1980.” Critic Zhang Li wrote, “The entire narrative is meticulous and well-rounded, bursting with vigor, leaving the reader sighing with admiration. This novel might well signal the arrival of a golden age in Zhang Yueran’s writing.”
The Author: Zhang Yueran is regarded as one of China’s most influential young writers. Born in Shandong in 1982, she has published two short story collections and four novels, including The Promise Bird and Ten Loves, both of which are published by Math Paper Press in English translation by Jeremy Tiang. She is chief editor of the prestigious literary journal Newriting, and she was recently on Unitas Magazine’s 20 under 40 list of Chinese writers. Yueran teaches creative writing at Renmin University in Beijing.
Switching feet, Grandma began working the treadle again. It was hard to believe someone as lazy as her was prepared to spend several weeks sewing a patchwork quilt that wouldn’t even keep out the cold, all because someone had told her working a foot-operated machine would keep dementia away. She worried we’d bully her if her mind started to go, and so here she was, frantically pedalling away.
Running out of thread, she came to a halt. I solicitously rushed to get her sewing box.
“Grandma?” I asked casually, standing to one side with the box held out. “I’m sure you must be hoping for Grandpa to wake up?”
“I’m hoping he dies soon,” she answered, not even looking up. “He’s a hardy old bugger, still holding on after lying there all these years. If he’d died sooner, the hospital would have given us proper compensation. Now they’ve changed directors a few times – who knows if the management will still take responsibility?”
“You really don’t wish he’d wake up, not even a little bit? If he came round, we’d be—” I searched my brain for the right word. “Reunited.”
“Reunited? Ha!” That voice like a partridge. “Where would he live? The hospital would stop sending funds. What would we eat? You’re not planning to support us, are you?” She spat with sudden violence, glowering at me with her beady eyes. I ran into the inner room and looked around wildly. Trunks everywhere. It was true, there was nowhere to put another bed.
After a while, Auntie came home. I took the bags of groceries from her and followed her into the kitchen.
“Auntie, if Grandpa woke up, would you be happy?” I asked tentatively, rinsing a cucumber.
“That’s not possible,” she said. “His brain’s been removed.”
“It has?” I’d always thought his condition was because he’d been hit on the head or something.
“Not all of it, maybe half.”
“But I mean maybe. If he did wake up, just imagine—”
“Mm.” Auntie lit the stove, then swiftly beat some eggs in a bowl. “Then I’d be out of a job. I got my post at the hospital as a replacement for your Grandpa. And now there are all these new people, younger than me, with better qualifications. They’d love to squeeze me out. If Dad regained consciousness, they’d have an excuse to send me packing.” In the hot oil, the egg mixture was emitting yellow bubbles, like little scorched suns. Auntie stood frozen, still holding the spatula. As the stench of burning filled the air, she shuddered violently. “It’s impossible, impossible,” she muttered over and over. “No one wakes up after having half their brain cut out. You know I’m not brave, don’t frighten me like that.”
I gobbled up some charred omelette before hurrying into the other room. My library books were laid out on the desk, but I didn’t have the energy to look at them again. No one wakes up after having half their brain cut out. I tried to force myself to accept this fact.
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