Friday, March 22, 2002

like being there

<>Something Like a House, By Sid Smith. Picador, 6.99 ($10)

By Jason Overdorf
<>(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in March 2002).

Sid Smith's Something Like a House, the winner of the 2001 Whitbread First Novel Award, is the story of a British deserter from the Korean War who is granted political asylum in China, only to become a slave to Miao-minority peasants.

The deserter, Jim Fraser, carves a life for himself in a village during the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. He becomes the "only round-eye in the Red Guards," and when the Miao resort to ritualistic cannibalism, he shares the organs of an executed man "because it was a kind of belonging."

But Something Like a House is not the whinging catalogue of backbreaking labour that is the standard Cultural Revolution tale. In his happiness over his smallest achievements -- for instance, finding part of an old washtub in which to boil his meagre allotment of rice -- Fraser is more like a triumphant Crusoe.

The Whitbread award committee, as well as many reviewers, lauded the authority of Smith's portrayal of a simple man's terrible misfortunes -- making much of the fact that Smith has never travelled to China.
To Smith's credit, the novel doesn't read like the product of hours spent in a library. "The most important preparation for the book was my seven years as a labourer," said Smith, who worked as a journalist for 17 years and lives in England. "I couldn't have written about life as a Chinese peasant without the years in unskilled jobs, including gardener, gravedigger, dustman, docker, council workman, builder's labourer and railway labourer, and a year alone as a woodsman on a cliff-top overlooking the Bristol Channel."

Less successful is the plot development. This takes a serious work of literature perilously close to the cliches of genre fiction. Some marketing genius behind the book's production considers this weakness to be one of its selling points. The excited prose on the dust jacket reads: ". . . he must confront the horrifying secret behind his years in China -- that all along he has been the target of a fearsome conspiracy. And now it threatens us all . . ." The plot is nowhere near as bad as that.

Other aspects of the novel set the bar so high that one wishes Smith had realized his story of life among the Miao was already arresting enough.