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Swallowing Clouds


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Lillian Ng's first novel "Silver Sister" was runner-up for the Angus & Robertson / Bookworld Prize in 1993 and won the Human Rights Award in 1995.


Syn, an older Chinese student studying English in Australia, finds herself financially depleted and desperately in search of employment. Zhu, an older, married butcher, offers the unsuspecting Syn a job in his shop. Over time, the two find themselves engaged in a passionate love affair. Syn's position as Zhu's mistress is openly acknowledged by Zhu's familyÄshe even becomes highly favored by Zhu's mother over KarLeng, Zhu's wife. The affair continues unbeknownst to KarLeng until the death of Zhu's mother. Written in retrospect, the story of Syn's past merges toward the present with each successive chapter. Much of the novel consists of detailed erotic passages describing Syn and Zhu's regular sexual exploits. Sydney-based novelist Ng has written a tale of love, lust, power, greed, money, and passion in which the strong overpower the weak. A work for more mature audiences, this may find a place in some fiction and Asian literature collections.ÄShirley N. Quan, Orange Cty. P.L., Stanton, CA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

The emotional plight of a Chinese exile is the theme of Ng's second novel (after Silver Sister). Born in a mud hut in a village near Shanghai, Syn endures her first exile, to Inner Mongolia, during the Cultural Revolution. Later, she seizes an opportunity to leave China on a temporary visa to study English in Sydney, Australia. In 1989, when she watches TV coverage of the Tiananmen Square uprising, Syn joins other overseas Chinese in protesting the massacre. Immediately, she is blacklisted, money ceases to arrive from her family in Shanghai and she is forced to take a job in Zhu Zhiyee's butcher shop. Stout, middle-aged, lascivious and married, Zhu becomes Syn's lover, sets her up in her own home and introduces her to the possibilities of erotic love. Their sexual exploration is stark and disturbing, graphic in its pain and pleasures. When Zhu tires of her, Syn remembers the words of a soothsayer about a woman drowned for the sin of adultery while her lover goes free. Her stoic despair when she seems to have lost everything is moving. The descriptions of the affair are juxtaposed with scenes several years later, in 1994, when Syn (in her 40s) returns to China with an Australian tour group and is reunited with her long-suffering mother. Ng uses the tour group as a device to explicate Chinese history and mythology, via the tour guide's narration. The contrast between the vicissitudes of one life and the relentless sweep of history is more effectively evoked through Syn's own story: her abandonment to erotic love, and her hopes for a safe future, seen against the dramatic backdrop of China's political upheaval. Readers seduced by Ng's sensuous prose and her unusual story may overlook the fragmented structure and chronological inconsistencies (references to Syn's age during certain historical events do not add up; a missing decade is never accounted for) but the intensely erotic love scenes overpower the rest of the narrative, to its detriment. (July) FYI: Silver Sister won the Human Rights Award for fiction in 1995. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

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