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“The Invisible Valley” by Su Wei

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During the late 1960s and early 1970s, nearly 70 million Chinese young adults were exiled from the cities and sent to rural areas in the “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement.” In addition to being uprooted from their homes and families, many of these young people were denied the opportunity to pursue higher education and have been referred to as China’s “lost generation.” One of the students affected by this policy was Su Wei, who left China in 1989 and now teaches at Yale. In his first novel to be translated into English, Su Wei draws on these experiences to create a tale of isolation, spirituality, and romance.

The main character, Lu Beiping, is sent to a rubber plantation on Hainan Island. Things get complicated almost immediately, when he’s roped into a ghost-marriage to the foreman’s deceased daughter. Being an adopted member of the foreman’s family gets him a choice assignment: managing the plantation’s herd of cattle. Taking them up to pasture on the slopes of Mudkettle Mountain allows Lu to make his own schedule and spend most of his time reading. But he’s not alone on the mountain. Lu becomes involved in the lives of a very unconventional family of woodcutters, and finds himself drawn deeper into their traditions and beliefs.

Because of their isolation, the woodcutters are dependent on nature for their survival and prosperity. They’re adept at observing minute details of the world around them, and plants, animals, and weather events are infused with spiritual significance. Wei’s narrative brings the tropical wilderness of Hainan Island to life, making it feel like a character in its own right. Some scenes have a dreamlike atmosphere, as when Lu stumbles upon a valley full of strange plants that he’s never able to find when he goes looking for it intentionally.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the author’s background, the novel also highlights the absurdity and irony of the government’s attempts to turn Lu Beiping and his fellow students into perfect Communists. The teenagers are encouraged to see flirtation and romance as distractions from revolutionary pursuits; a girl Lu has a crush on dismisses his advances as “low-minded sentiments.” But of course, without the ultimate result of such flirtations, no society—Communist or otherwise—would be able to propagate itself. The reader is reminded of this with a “miracle of life” scene in which a cow gives birth in the middle of a raging typhoon, and also by Lu’s own developing relationship with the woodcutter Jade. Far from being low-minded, the woodcutters view sexuality as a metaphysical good, an affirmation of life in the face of death. Similarly, one of the “bourgeois” attitudes the youngsters have been sent to the countryside to unlearn is belief in the supernatural. Yet the people of Hainan are more spiritual (or superstitious, depending on one’s point of view) than anyone in the city Lu came from. The ghost-marriage isn’t done merely for tradition’s sake; the foreman and his family genuinely believe it’s necessary to appease the dead girl’s spirit. Meanwhile, the woodcutter family places great emphasis on placating the spirits of the mountain, engaging in actions that propitiate benevolent spirits and avoiding those that would rouse the ire of malign ones. Human beings, in this story, both embody and are at the whims of, natural forces that make any political ideology seem small and shallow by comparison.

The Invisible Valley was published by Small Beer Press, which focuses mostly on genre fiction. Whether the various supernatural forces the characters believe in have any objective reality is left ambiguous. One could either read this as a historical fiction novel in which folk beliefs play a strong role in driving the plot, or as a magical realism novel in which the magical elements are understated and subtle. Either way, it’s a quirky, philosophical, lyrical book.

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