“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

时钟里的女人 (lit. Woman in a Clock)

Novel by Ding Liying.

In the footsteps of Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway, Woman In a Cuckoo Clock (my own translation of the title) by Ding Liying chronicles a hot summer day in the life of Lu Yan, against the backdrop of Shanghai. As the curtain of 20th century draws to a close, Lu Yan, over 30, an unemployed divorcee wakes up at 6:04 am and begins her reveries of the dropping of half a watermelon the night before, a seemingly trivial detail which brings out her fight with her husband and the subsequent divorce. The next 18 hours are depicted in a stream of consciousness style which interweaves her thoughts, memories and the events of the day. By going back and forth in time and journeying in and out of our heroine’s mind, the novel presents us with snapshots of Lu Yan’s life in the last twenty plus years including her childhood, her family life, and her relationship with men. However, the focus point of the story is really her emotions associated with love, lust, loss and hope. Through close depictions of the day’s major events include a reunion with a long lost female friend, a blind date, one night stand with a graduate student in psychology, and the origin of a box of valuable antiques, the novel bares Lu Yan’s inner thoughts in its entirety and in so doing creates a vivid picture of China undulating in the chaotic tide of sexual freedom and economic boom, and along with those opportunities, the pressures on individual morals and identity.

Before this novel, Ding Liying is primarily known as a poet and a short story writer. Fortunately, her delicate and poetic style is well preserved in this novel because each chapter opens with exquisite excerpts from poems. I also love the honesty in the storytelling and the spare language used. Though Lu Yan is an attractive woman, but the author never hesitates to reveal her biological needs, such as eating, having sex, and going to the bathroom. Some of the dialogues are written in Shanghai dialect, which add an expansive dimension and bring the scenes alive. This novel is like a collage, look closely and you should see a microcosm of the world, for we all ponder about life and death, love and loss, fear and hope, don’t we all?

By Yu Yan Chen August, 2010