Published earlier this month, P. P. Wong’s The Life of a Banana tells the story of a twelve-year-old Chinese-British girl growing up in London. After the death of her mother, Xi Ling and her brother go to live with their controlling and somewhat terrifying grandmother, famous actress aunt, and struggling and mysterious uncle. Xi Ling is taken out of a school she was happy in to move to a private school. There she has only one friend, half-Chinese, half-Jamaican Jay, and is constantly the victim of harsh racial bullying. It’s a story about identity, especially nationality, and about growing up.
It’s a slightly odd book, and I was undecided for a lot of the novel whether or not I liked it. By the ending, I had fairly firmly come down on the side of like, but it took me a long time to warm to the novel.
Let me to explain why.
Firstly, there’s the writing style. Throughout it is a very odd mix of comedy and tragedy, and you’re never really sure what tone Wong is going for. For example, in Xi Ling’s mother’s bizarre and melodramatic death it almost seems that Wong is trying to make this awful event funny. The whole book ends up reading quite strangely, as often you really can’t tell what is trying to be said. This strange overlapping of the serious and the comic creates a novel that seems unable to quite make up its mind about what it is.
I find the frequent block capitals to indicate characters shouting incredibly jarring to read. It seems a minor point, but it really disrupts the book’s flow, and feels very clumsy and overdone. Likewise I find the slang quite irritating. I do understand that Wong taking on the voice of a twelve year old, but it still feels very overdone. Slang and accenting in dialogue I have no problem with. Slang in prose I’m more on the fence for. It can work very well, but here it feels forced, especially as most of the slang is very out of date.
That’s the other thing. This book is supposed to be contemporary, but it very much feels like it’s set twenty or thirty years ago. There isn’t much internet or mobile phones, for one thing. For another, the racism feels outdated. This may be just my ignorance, but from my experiences and observations, it has always seemed that racism in schools, while still present, often takes on subtler and at times more subconscious level. Racism in children nowadays is, I think, more likely to come from ignorance than active hatred. It’s still racism and it’s still a problem, but it’s of a different and less obvious character than that of Shril’s towards Xing Li. In fact, because it is less obvious it probably needs to be written about me. For bullying of any sort to reach the violence of Shirl’s attack against Xing Li is incredibly rare. It again makes the plot feel overdone, because you end up thinking, surely this would never happen. I understand that the bullying is meant to shock the reader, but my personal impression is that it would lead to many readers thinking this ridiculous, and thus perhaps dismissing the problem of racial bullying in schools altogether. The novel often exaggerates to prove a point, but the exaggerations to me go too far. They may well distract people from the actual problems Wong is trying to draw attention to, or even make people dismiss them.
I also felt there was a slight hypocrisy present in the novel regarding Wong’s image of private schools. Xi Ling seems never to encounter any racial bullying in her previous state school, but encounters a great deal the moment she begins a private school. This assumption that the sort of people who attend a private school are far more likely to be racist than people at a state school seems, to me, rather hypocritical in a novel that is all about fighting assumptions and prejudices, about not judging people by their social background.
Another issue was Xi Ling’s age. She doesn’t feel twelve. She feels about fourteen fifteen. Obviously this is a twelve year old girl who has been through a lot, but I am slightly bemused as to why Wong didn’t just make her a few years older. Her voice seems older, as does her relationship with Jay. She doesn’t come across as mature so much as impossibly old for her age.
Again, I’ve done that thing where I want to get my criticisms out the way and then forget to explain why I like the novel. Because I did enjoy The Life of a Banana by the end. And here’s why: Jay.
Well, not just him, but mostly him. Jay is certainly my favourite character. He felt like by far the most developed and real character in the book, perhaps with the exception of the narrator. Again, he doesn’t really feel twelve, but he is still consistently a delight to read. His family provides a good foil to Xi Ling’s, a vision of a different sort of ethnic minority identity, and a much more certain and confident one that Xi Ling addresses. It’s Jay that to me makes the novel.
I also like the character of the grandmother. I do think that, at times, she is in danger of becoming a stereotype (which is probably not the best way to fight racism), but for most of the novel she avoids this. She presents us with various funny scenes, and yet develops a lot throughout the book. I especially like that you grow to have some sort of understand for her long before Xi Ling ever does, and I like her role in the ending.
Uncle Ho is also an important figure in the make-up of the novel. It is his plotline that saves The Life of a Banana from being a one issue novel, that turns it from a novel about race and racism to a novel about race, identity, family, and mental illness. It depends the novel another level, and gives you a greater insight in Xi Ling’s grandmother’s mind.
Overall, The Life of a Banana is worth a read. It’s certainly different, and the content and plot are, if rather melodramatic, fairly strong. It’s the writing style that, to me, most lets the novel down. Nonetheless, I think it’s the sort of novel you grow to like by the end of it. And if nothing else, read it for the lovely character that is Jay.
Greatest strength: Jay.
Greatest weakness: I do feel that a lot of the time both the writing and the plot was overdone. This book lacks subtly.
Let’s finish on a quote: “Good morning class.”
“Good morning Mrs Wilkins.”
“Class, before we begin, I would like to announce we have a newcomer all the way from China.”
(I was born in Hackney.)
Next week: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell