My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I spent a good while reading this book and returned to it many times to re-read passages and think about what I’d read. It stirred up many emotions because the situations were very authentic and reminded me a lot of my own life.
Although it’s a novel and the events are fictionalised, it has the feel of a documentary. There is a fly-on-the-wall realism about it, giving us slices of the characters’ lives. As the title suggests, these lives do not run smoothly. There are upsets and problems.
Conflict is necessary in a novel. It is exciting to see characters bumping up against obstacles and each other. It shows us what they are made of. And it is exhilarating to see them winning through.
But because of the documentary style of this novel, you have a sense that not all the conflicts will end happily. In life conflicts can be messy. There often are no real solutions to a problem. People go on annoying us. Bad people persist in their bad behaviour. We get distressed and traumatised and have nervous breakdowns as a result.
In Trials of Life, the situations are all too real and I felt real anger and real frustration in response to what was happening on the page. There are scenes and characters that I recognise only too well. Scenes such as when Dick Appleton is boasting of how he gave his Chinese minders the slip in Xian. He managed, he says, to spend the night in the sleazy part of the city where he saw teahouses packed with prostitutes. Naturally, the Chinese officials would not have wanted that.
But there is a certain way foreigners talk about the Chinese government that makes a Chinese person grind their teeth in frustration. There is a shallowness and arrogance to them in the face of which you are completely helpless. You have no choice but to let them persist in their ignorance while letting them believe that they are superior and you are the stupid one.
Chinese people are not hoodwinked by their government. We know that China is not perfect. But foreigners often believe that they know what goes on in China far better than we do because they are not ‘brainwashed’. They are experts by virtue of being outsiders.
Being reminded of this is in dialogue that is all too authentic stirred up very real emotions in me. But Dick Appleton, I should stress, is a particularly villainous character. He is not your typical foreigner. He is rotten to the core.
A large part of the book is focused on an employment tribunal and the events leading up to it. We learn in bitter detail what kind of a man Dick is and what Pearl suffers at his hands. I know how hard this must have been to go through because I faced a similar situation in my own career when I was forced to quit my job. But I have to give credit to Pearl and to the author of this book, Junying Kirk. Pearl challenges Dick. She faces her demons and Junying faced hers, I am sure, in writing this book.
It is a stirring story that must draw on very personal experiences. It is free from artifice. Sincerity is in every line. It succeeds in documenting with great accuracy the trials and also the triumphs of an academic life split across two very different continents. Anyone who reads it can’t fail to be moved. And it will, I hope, allow English-speaking readers to get a better grasp of what it means to be Chinese.