It would be easy to characterize An Yu’s outstanding debut novel Braised Pork as a mystical journey of one woman’s grief, but that is to almost say nothing about the book at all. Jia Jia is a young woman faced with the sudden suicide of her husband; her story reads like a heavy dream. Its characters, its stuttering plot, its surreal setting and An Yu’s ability to fold in the strangeness of the work into our own reality, make it unforgettable.
The book starts out as a crime mystery, when Jia Jia discovers her husband Chen Hang with his head dipped in the bath. “But was it even possible for a grown man to drown in this tub?,” she asks as the reality of what happened to him settles and her body stiffens next to his. She lets the water out of the bath and waits. Chen Hang was not the hero of her story, but her loneliness becomes even more apparent with his passing. Yet it is the drawing near the sink that captures her attention—“a fish’s body with a man’s head.”
Unable to forget the sketch, and struggling with her new reality, Jia Jia stumbles to a local bar where she meets Leo. She rediscovers her own desires and again starts to paint. The young widow is faced with financial uncertainty and an identity she was never fully able to explore alongside Chen Hang. She had a good life with him, sure, but she was now on a path to find closure. The fish-man figure comes back to her in drowning dreams that leave her confused and disorientated, and eventually, it also takes her to Tibet.
The jump to a spiritual journey from the bars of Beijing might have read as a cliché, were it not for the way An Yu is able to interweave the dreamlike state of Jia Jia’s consciousness with her surroundings. At times, Jia Jia’s character seems to dangle right on the surface, and yet her dreams and her reflections serve as a window into her current state, and within them, we are able to construct a picture, not only of a woman struck with grief, but also of a woman that is doing all in her power to take back her life:
Once again, she lost sight of where she had come from. And there was no evidence that she was moving forward either; perhaps she was only treading water, kicking behind her, with the fish alongside. She turned around and tried to direct her body the other way, but she was not sure anymore. The silver light from the fish dimmed and vanished, and Jia Jia was alone.
Alongside the visions, there are also windows of the day-to-day that ground the book in reality. There is the flat hunting, the Chinese New Year, the long drives, spilled drinks and travel itineraries. All happen right before An Yu once again changes gears and brings us back to the dream-like hallucinations. There is a kind of magic in the way the reader is also constantly submerged with Jia Jia for just long enough, before catching breath on the surface.
An Yu’s writing has, for evident reasons, been called Murakami-esque, yet it seems unfair when her voice feels so utterly original. It would be unfair to also compare this masterfully crafted work to a style defined by a man that created his own genre and as such was also, most often, defined by the men.
Braised Pork is instead a unique, metaphysical and surreal tale of a woman that seeks answers in a world that has so often betrayed her with silence.