Review

The entangled lives of middle-aged prostitutes

Can Xue (above), whose pen name is Deng Xiaohua, is known for her experimental novels.
Can Xue (above), whose pen name is Deng Xiaohua, is known for her experimental novels.PHOTO: YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS

FICTION

LOVE IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM

By Can Xue, translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen

Yale University Press/

Hardcover/

264 pages/

$29.96/Books Kinokuniya

3.5 stars

The love lives of a group of middle-aged prostitutes who used to work at a cotton mill are the focus of this surreal collection of inter-connected stories from Can Xue, the pen name of author Deng Xiaohua, known for her experimental novels.

The rise of the sex industry in an unnamed city has given new opportunities to women looking for a way out of boredom.

A Si, Long Sixiang and Jin Zhu ditch their factory jobs to jump into the sea of business, becoming prostitutes at a hot spring spa that offers sex among its services.

Their entanglements with a string of mysterious and shady characters take place against backdrops that are every bit as mysterious, from sewers and caves to dens of vice in an area called the free port.

The book can be hard to follow as it does not have a unifying plotline, but is made up of chapters about the backstories and encounters of these women and their lovers.

It opens with the story of a widow named Cuilan in the first chapter. The spotlight later turns to her lover Wei Bo, his wife Xiao Yuan, Xiao Yuan's doctor crush Dr Liu and other characters, such as Mr You, the antique appraiser who carries a torch for Cuilan, or Lao Yong, a farmer who wants to rescue Long Sixiang from the brothel.

The book has such a big cast of characters that it can be easy to lose track of what is happening.

Some parts are also just plain bizarre, such as when Xiao Yuan moves to Nest County - where the children seem mysteriously precocious - to be near Dr Liu.

One night, Dr Liu hears the voice of a student, telling him that 15 of them and their teacher Xiao are having a class on Tectonic Landforms of the Gobi Desert out in the wilderness. He does not see them, but hears "distinctly the little animals underground digging with more vigour".

Still, there is much to like about how women and their desires take centre stage in this collection of stories, which does not shy away from talking about sex.

In a satirical episode, a former worker working on a history of the now-closed factory tells A Si he has written about her and other sex workers from the mill. "I'm excited every time I hear news about Miss Si. You are the pride of the cotton mill workers," he tells her.

It may be a difficult read, but Love In The New Millennium stands out for its bold and trangressive female characters and its dream-like universe of dark and unfathomable spaces.

If you like this, read: Northern Girls: Life Goes On (Trafalgar Square, 2016, $19.80, Books Kinokuniya). The novel by Sheng Keyi, translated into English by Shelly Bryant, follows migrant female workers seeking their fortunes in Shenzhen in southern China.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2019, with the headline 'The entangled lives of middle-aged prostitutes'. Print Edition | Subscribe