Home > Book Reviews, China > Book Review – The Middle Kingdom by Andrea Barrett

Book Review – The Middle Kingdom by Andrea Barrett

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I picked up this book for two reasons: firstly, the name ‘The Middle Kingdom’ (which had the connotation of something Chinese), and second, the outstanding cover, depicting the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. There was no way I wasn’t going to buy the book, based on those two factors.  I hadn’t heard of Andrea Barrett, so I did a bit of research and discovered that she was (is) an American writer famous for more recent work than this (published 1991 in the US and not until 2000 in the UK). Barrett was an obscure writer over the course of her first three novels (this is the third), and having read The Middle Kingdom, it’s apparent as to why. More on that a little later.

I loved the beginning of this book, and I loved the fact that it had four sections, but that they weren’t told in chronological order. To be honest, I’m a bit of a sucker for gimmickry of this kind, which perhaps helps to explain why I like David Mitchell’s work (most famously, Cloud Atlas).  Part One is a short section set during the Tiananmen Square massacre period in Beijing. Here our American protagonist, Grace, is forced to flee the country with her infant son, Jody. Part One whetted my appetite, and Part Two, set three or so years before Tiananmen, delivered. In Part Two, we learn that Grace is suffering in an unhappy marriage to a scientist named Walter Hoffenmeir, and that she is timid, overweight, and desirous of escape from her pampered but empty life. This she finds in Beijing. Great stuff, I thought: interesting story, full of the flavour of China as told from the perspective of an outsider.

But then Part Three. Part Three. This is where the book fell down for me. I’ll try to explain why. Part One is around 18 pages in length, Part Two is about 75 pages, and Part Three is 110 pages long. In a four part book that weighs in at a trim 280 pages in total, the third part is by far the fattest. Here we are taken back even further to bear witness to Grace’s earlier experiences (1974-86). In theory, there’s nothing wrong with this, but in The Middle Kingdom, the technique causes the narrative to sag heavily. All that the third part does is develop the characters of Grace and Walter. That’s it. This section contributes nothing toward the later plot, except in that we understand the motivations of the central characters better. And the material itself is not especially interesting either. It’s mainly about Grace’s various love troubles, spanning two husbands, as well as her weight battles (she tends to binge eat) and various other minor details. Worse, nothing really comes to life in terms of actual events being described in much detail either. It’s a long, long recount and not a particularly interesting one either.

Part Four is better, but by then I was reading to finish, not reading for enjoyment. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that the reader knows that Grace will end up leaving Walter and staying in Beijing (we have already witnessed the aftermath of this), robbing the finale of its dramatic potential. This kind of structure can work exceptionally well, but I get the sense that Barrett botched it in The Middle Kingdom. I realise that I haven’t really described the plot of the novel at all, but as I didn’t find it especially interesting, I won’t bother now. Suffice to say that while Barrett showed flashes of brilliance and definite potential, The Middle Kingdom ended up being something of a fizzer. For once, it seems, popular opinion was right in condemning this author to the obscurity she languished in at that time.

I’ll definitely pick up one of her later books if I see one around the place though. I’m open minded about this author. Any suggestions are to her better books would be welcomed.

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