I was lucky enough the receive a copy of “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside” from Quincy Caroll to review it on my blog, which I am gladly doing.
So let’s first have a look at Quincy himself, who, according to his website, “is a writer from Boston, Massachusetts. After graduating from Yale in 2007, he lived in Hunan for three years, where he taught English and worked as a copywriter for a growing consumer electronics company. He currently teaches Mandarin at a charter school in Oakland, California. His debut novel, Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside, was published in November 2015 by Inkshares.”The story:
The story revolves around the two main characters Thomas and Daniel, two Americans teaching English in the small town of Ningyuan in Hunan province, China. The first, Thomas, is an entitled deadbeat, content to pass the rest of his days in Asia skating by on the fact that he’s white, while the second, a recent college graduate named Daniel, is an idealist at heart. Over the course of the novel, these two characters fight to establish primacy in Ningyuan, a remote town in the south of Hunan, with one of their more overzealous students, Bella, caught in between. In the end, the country proves too small for both of them. The novel attempts to bring to light certain attitudes and motivations becoming increasingly anachronistic among foreigners in China and discredit their legitimacy.
The title was the first thing that caught my eye, since it reminded me of something I had learned years ago in university. “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside” was the name of a movement in China under Mao in the late 1960s to early 1970s. The movement sent urban youth to farming villages and small mountain towns to learn from the workers and farmers who lived there. Some consider these young people China’s “lost generation”, since most of them were deprived of the opportunity to go to university. Though seemingly non-related to the problems of two English teachers who voluntarily go to Ningyuan, I believe the title catches a deeper sentiment expressed in both characters.
I think Quincy does a very good job portraying both characters. Thomas is utterly unlikable, anti-social and mean and yet sees himself as the victim in most situations. He thinks himself better than most others, especially than the people in China. I don’t know about other countries, but I am sure that I have met at least one Thomas here in Japan as well. There will always be those people who think they can get away with everything because they are white/a foreigner.
Daniel on the other had believes that he will make a difference and he is still struggling to find his way in life. Yes, he might be too idealistic at times, and yes, he might be running from making a real decision for his own life, but in the end I think he really did make a difference. At some point Thomas implies that Daniel is just like him when he was younger and that he will be like Thomas in the end, but I don’t think, that this is true. I might be a little naïve myself sometimes, but I still believe that one should try to see the good in people.
Two things made the reading difficult in the beginning. Something you will immediately notice are the absent quotation marks, so you do not visually see where speech begins or ends. I found that very confusing and it did trip me up more than once while reading, but all in all it wasn’t as bad as expected.
The second thing was the phrases in Chinese, that were not translated. I am torn on this one if it is a good thing or a bad thing. Since I (still) can’t understand any Chinese I had no clue what was going on and could only infer from context what was said. So, bad for me because I sometimes had the feeling I didn’t get the whole thing, but on the other hand a good move, because I am sure many foreigners feel this “What is happening” kind of sensation when they are in China/Asia for the first time.
I am not an English teacher, whether in China nor in Japan, but I believe that someone teaching English in Japan might find parallels to his or her job. I enjoyed reading the book and found myself in small things, like the time Daniel automatically nods to a foreigner he sees and is embarrassed because “Simply because they came from different countries did not mean they owed each other a hello.”
I still struggle with this every time – should I not, should I ignore him/her, where do I look after it is so obvious that I saw them and now try to decide what to do… (you see the point here).
All in all an interesting read and a great debut novel, which got fantastic ratings everywhere. I am looking forward to his next book.
If you are interested to learn more about Quincy and his book, here are a few links:
Quincy Caroll Website