Braised Pork by An Yu (Grove Press 2020)
Reviewed by Allison McCausland
It’s easy for the monotony of life to settle in. It lulls us into a false sense of security. It keeps us from recognizing how drained our happiness and sense of self has become. Both circumstances plague protagonist Jia Jia as she struggles to adjust to life in Beijing after her husband’s bizarre death.
For most of her marriage, Jia Jia’s husband has provided for her. That is, until he seemingly drowns in their bathtub leaving behind only the cryptic drawing of a fish with a man’s head. Since his death, Jia Jia dreams of being underwater and trying to keep up with a strange silver fish swimming above her just out of reach. The use of water in Jia Jia’s dreams serves as baptism for the spiritual and personal journey that she undertakes to discover the meaning behind the drawing left behind, as well as her own past.
Author An Yu makes a subtle, poignant debut in the exploration of what motivates a person to leave a piece of themselves behind, and the impact it has on those closest to them. A native of Beijing herself, Yu immerses readers in the upper- and middle-class sections of the city as well as the art scene that gradually pulls Jia Jia back in as she finds more and more time to devote to her craft. Jia Jia uses her art skills to try and understand the drawing left behind by her husband, but finds herself unable to draw anything related to the ocean. With encouragement from her aunt and local bartender/lover Leo, Jia Jia sees the only way out of her rut is to retrace the journey to Tibet her husband took before passing.
What Jia Jia doesn’t expect is the flood of memories, family secrets, and spiritual awakening when she finally arrives in the village that inspired the fish-man sketch. As Yu later reveals, Jia Jia’s mother had similar premonitions of the elusive silver fish and dreams of being underwater. Her estranged father recounts how Jia Jia’s mother let her obsession with catching up to the fish take her, much like the mysterious drowning took Jia Jia’s husband.
There are several theories on what the fish represents: a type of enlightenment, a sense of purpose chief. Perhaps it is Yu’s own commentary on how lost we can become in grief or an obsession with understanding what we cannot understand. However, the fact that Jia Jia chooses to quit her pursuit of the fish-man as she plunges deeper and deeper into the depths of her dreams signifies that to chase something we aren’t meant to understand takes away from the real imports of real life. To chase something that is already gone might cost us the pleasure of appreciating what is around us.
With all the focus on the significance of the fish-man, what about braised pork? Yu winks at the reader when briefly bringing up two points of view on the delectable dish. In the first instance we are presented with braised pork at a restaurant when Jia Jia meets with her estranged father after her husband has passed. She notices how the seemingly perfect couple at the table across from theirs enjoy their meal in a secure bubble, one that has recently burst for Jia Jia. Braised, by definition, means to lightly fry a dish and let it simmer. Take it off too early and the food remains raw. Letting it simmer too long only burns what is naturally good inside. Jia Jia’s musings on the happy couple enjoying the meal leads to some bitter reminiscing about how she and her deceased husband appeared content but only lived together out of convenience. There was no real love in their marriage. Nevertheless, toward the end of the story, after Jia Jia’s father recounts her mother’s similar obsession with finding the elusive dream fish, he offers to have her stay for dinner, which happens to be braised pork. At first glance, the meal seems as superficial as when the reader is first introduced to it, but this meal symbolizes a deeper simmer, and a more complex understanding between father and daughter.
Yu’s novel is a light read with a powerful punch; don’t let its size fool you. The carefully crafted narrative leaves readers pondering their own understanding of what is most important and the strength it takes to face change instead of shying away. Like the titular braised pork, the longer this novel sits with you the more flavor it releases.
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