A review of February Flowers by Fan Wu

The moment of transformation comes late in the novel, and is handled so subtly that it is easy to miss. Nevertheless the reader is left with a satisfying conclusion that doesn’t limit the story with overt sensationalism. February Flowers is a beautifully written, promising debut, full of light detail and intense reflection.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

February Flowers
By Fan Wu
Picador (Pan Macmillan)
September 2006, ISBN 033044803X, 256 Pages, trade paper, $RRP$32.95

February Flowers is a subtle and delicate book. It is the tension under the surface, kept in check and only hinted at, that drives the narrative forward. To a certain extent, it is a coming of age story that highlights a point in time when innocent seventeen year old student Ming meets the worldly and flashy Miao Yan. Ming is captivated by Miao Yan’s other-ness; her vibrancy, and the bond between the girls grows until it becomes a quiet obsession for Ming. Miao on the other hand, makes her affection clear, but in the end seems unaffected by their relationship and is able to easily walk away. As the novel is written in memoir format, narrated twelve years after the fact by an older, post-marriage Ming. The melancholy and sad resignation permeate its pages and give the reader a strong sense of Ming’s longing, and her repression right from the start:

That night I can’t sleep. The past fills me with deep emotion. I recall the evening Miao Yan and I first talked. The details return with which vividness that it seems as if I am watching a video of it – the low-hanging moon, the whitish cement ground, Miao Yan’s glittering eyes, her fluttering blouse, the way she lit her cigarette and exhaled the smoke. It is all imprinted on my memory and can never be removed. (7)

Ming’s characterisation is representative of the post cultural revolution China of the 90s. Fan Wu does a beautiful job of creating a realistic setting where almost unlimited, but relatively new, freedom contrasts with the tight regime it grew out of. Ming is conscious of this freedom which Miao Yan comes to represent, while she simultaneously holds on to the notion of ‘good girl’ that her parents expect. The tension between the two characters, and the concurrent tension within the university itself propels the story. An undercurrent of fear puts Miao Yan’s relaxed cynicism in perspective as uniformed workers from the Security Department patrol the campus looking for overly made-up women or smokers. Governmental control forms a backdrop to the story as Miao Yan struggles with her desire to work in Shenzhen, border controls and dossiers. But everything, including the hint of feminism, which underpins Ming’s awakening is handled subtly. Even a masturbation scene is light and poetic:

In the moonlight I saw her hand sticking out from the opening of the net. I wondered if she was going to get up to knit but she softly closed the net with a pin. Then she lay down and began to touch herself. Even though the net I could see her hands move over her chest and down to her lower body. Then I heard her panting softly, on and off, for a few minutes. At least she released a long satisfied sigh.(81)

The writing gathers momentum from its detailed perspective, allowing the reader to uncover the emotions of its protagonist through her perception of sensual world around here – the texture of a fabric, the notes of a song played on Ming’s violin, or the progression of rain:

No raindrops were visible but they were there: on tree leaves, sticking to walls, seeping into the earth. The whole world was a big wet sponge. Occasionally the ocean currents of the South China Sea brought showers and storms. Raindrops as big as beans would pour down. Sometimes, when it rained hard, wind would accompany the rain, to create a bigger mess. (162)

Fan Wu’s prose takes the tiny observed details of day to day life and builds these scenes into something much larger – a reflection on the meaning of life. The book ends with an energised and positive Ming, suddenly aware that she is no longer a subservient child, but a woman in charge of her own destiny:

I will talk with her like a woman, her equal, confidently, wisely, maturely, as if I was her twin sister. (239)

It’s an upbeat ending, but also characterised by the absence of its antagonist. This isn’t a story about Miao Yan though, and her gap is one which Ming’s growth ends up filling. The moment of transformation comes late in the novel, and is handled so subtly that it is easy to miss. Nevertheless the reader is left with a satisfying conclusion that doesn’t limit the story with overt sensationalism. February Flowers is a beautifully written, promising debut, full of light detail and intense reflection.

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