The phenomenon of “English Teachers in China” appears to be becoming its own sub-genre, considering the numbers of teachers with literary ambitions. Living abroad can be already enough to fuel our desire of adventure and diversity that, with a bit of literary talent, can be weaved in good stories. That’s the point: turning life in something extraordinary, even if it’s not. Ray Hecht’s “South China Morning Blues” accurately caught the zeitgeist of Shenzhen and the fears and anxieties of its young. Quincy Carroll’s book, “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside”, sadly isn’t as entertaining, fast-paced and relevant. Feeble plot and slow pace don’t help the reader in getting into the story, but it’s the lack of an original vision or purpose that turns the whole reading experience in something that is tantamount to walking across a desert.
The book tells the entwined stories of two contrasting English Teachers in Ningyuan: they work for the same school and the book follows pretty much their existence as they try to cope with an alien environment. The book describes their daily routines as foreigners living in the Chinese countryside, and dealing with the somewhat inscrutable Chinese mentality, while trying not to fall into the traps that can beset foreign teachers. There is a sense of detachment in their lives (something whoever has lived as an expat may relate to): they don’t belong to the place nor was the decision to relocate entirely their own, which is a perfectly logical plot device if you want to trigger a comedic situation. The novel is neither a comedy nor a drama though, rather a minimalistic portrait of what being a foreign teacher in a remote area of China really entails, which is where the book stops being interesting, sadly.
Carroll’s style is so rich in descriptions that any action is frozen and the story barely moves. If the intention was to describe the lazy dullness of life in the Chinese countryside with all the antics and the habits people develop, well, this good intention lays under a deep layer of one overwritten paragraph after another. One of the factors that contributes to the inanity of the book is how dialogues are merged into the text without hyphens: the author seems to take a few steps back and watch the story from a distance that doesn’t confer perspective and profundity, but that flattens everything in a frigid bi-dimensional diorama. It would a good stylistic choice if intention was to cast an ironic light on life of a group of stranded expats: pity is there isn’t an ounce of humor for the entire length of the novel. Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter and how one of the main characters is introduced:
“For two years now, he had been living in their country, in a crowded metropolis where you rarely glimpsed the sun, forgotten by his people and his people lost to him. Yet despite this estrangement from his family and his friends, he felt no greater bond of kinship among the Chinese with whom he lived. He was a man of more than sixty, gaunt and disheveled, with sparse gray whiskers surrounding his mouth and a sharp, protruding jaw that called attention to his chin. Scanning the crowd, he reached into his pocket and produced a small leather book, whereon the word PASSPORT has been printed in relief across the front. There was little money inside, but from what he could tell, it was likely to be enough. He folded his bills. Then he tucked them away at his breast.”
One of the problems I had as a reader was the complete lack of emotional bond all characters convey: they’re neither likeable nor despicable, they just happen to live in a challenging environment. Characters just happen to exist through their actions, while their interior life is neglected. Their inner words are not depicted. Second problem is characters are not really different from each other from a personality point of view. Since they have no interior life, they happen to be quite nondescript and the conflict between the leading characters doesn’t reach any intensity. No character is put through enough hell to make it an engaging story.
Quincy Carroll never really emerges with his vision and intentions as a writer; his style is rather too uniform and too descriptive. Of course, his purpose is to accurately describe the rural side of China and the members of the ethnic minority that populate it, but in the end he neither creates a world nor engages and moves his audience. In order to create a bond with your readers and make them care for your characters, to amaze them with the beauty of life in China, you must create a world and imbue it with life: it doesn’t matter whether your book is “Lord of the Rings” or “Sense and Sensibility”, any story lives within its own rules and its unchangeable logic. “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside” reads like a landscape painting where everything is seen from a forbidding distance just close enough to give you the illusions you know it all.
“Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside” is published by Inkshares, a crowdfunded book publisher. Visit Inkshared.com if you want to know more or if you are interested in starting your own project.