Min's first novel is less successful on a number of fronts than her outstanding memoir, Red Azalea. Narrated by a 29-year-old Chinese woman named Zebra whose family is poor and disgraced in the eyes of the Party, the story line traces the upheavals sparked by the appearance in the wake of the Cultural Revolution of a vibrant American teacher of English. When, in 1982, Katherine first arrives at the East Sea Foreign Language Institute in Shanghai, Zebra is a hardened veteran of the crushing Chinese system. Becoming Katherine's friend and prized pupil holds a dangerous allure for her: "Katherine. We enjoyed saying it. We liked to think that her name smelled of hot blood. We liked to imagine everything that came with the name. A story of the western world." Katherine meets Zebra's expectations, teaching her not only English but also the finer points of the Beatles, makeup and illicit affairs. Zebra is not the only one who finds the American compelling, however. So does a fellow student, who has the unlikely name of Lion Head and who is mixed up in political games involving the head of the Institute. Despite Zebra's multiple warnings, Katherine blunders into an unseemly incident in which the demands of the state trample the desires of the individual. One of Red Azalea's most enjoyable attributes was the tension created by the presence of a charged sensuality amid the gray uniformity of Communist China.
The novel Katherine written by Anchee Min tells the story of a Chinese Girl "Zebra" living in China during the 1980's after the chaotic, and painful years of the Cultural Revolution in China during which the lifestyles of the rich were condemned and the peasants and the good of the people and modern knowledge were held up as the standard as well as Chairman Mao's teachings and beliefs. These philosophies led to many underground cruelties and a generation who was now living under a government who controlled almost every aspect of their lives, they were used to living in a restricted environment and with restricted emotions.
Into this world walks Katherine, an American in her thirties who has been married and divorced, who loves color, and dances to music and dares to speak her mind in a country where this is not only discouraged but it can get you arrested just to speak out against a party official. Zebra; and her friends quickly come to both admire and yet at times hate their new teacher for her outgoing ways because she is the opposite of everything they have been taught to be and yet they yearn to be able to feel and act as freely as she does.
With love triangles, arrests made in the middle of the night, and moments when you just want to cry along with the characters this is not a book that will lose your attention. The writing was a little choppy at times for my taste, but overall it was a good read.
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Zebra Wong, a Chinese girl whose pragmatic mind conflicts with her passionate heart; Lion Head, her classmate, whose penchant for romantic intrigue belies his political ambitions, and Katherine, the seductive American with the red lipstick and the wild laugh who teaches them English and other foreign concepts: individualism, sensuality, and the Beatles......