Love in a Fallen City – Eileen Chang

July 11, 2010 § 15 Comments

Every quarter, Mee (Bookie Mee), Claire (Kiss a Cloud), Mark David (Absorbed in Words) and myself choose a piece of Asian literature to read together. We’re friendly people, and love sharing thoughts, so everyone else who’s interested in the books we’ve chosen to read is welcome to join us.

This post was due almost 2 weeks ago, but time has been a devil. For our Asian Book Group, Claire chose Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang, making it the second of 3 Chinese books that we are going to read this year. Before this, I’ve only heard of her other book, Lust, Caution, and that only because of the movie (which I haven’t watched..). When I first started reading the book, already Mee and Claire were gushing about how much they love the book, in the emails we exchanged. I was a little less impressed, but then again, that was just after reading the first few stories.

I figure her stories are the kind that have to be left to simmer. Take Jasmine Tea for example. When I first read this short story, I was left a little unnerved and confused about the direction the story took. I couldn’t understand what was the whole point of the story. But now, almost 3 weeks later, picking the book up and going through the story again, little snippets of it made me go, “Oh wait, I know that feeling.” It’s a story about a boy looking for love in his own mind, and this leads to some twisted feelings and actions that don’t seem justified no matter how you look at it, and yet it all just seems to fall into place exactly how it was meant to be.

In this collection of 4 novellas and 2 short stories, only The Golden Cangue was translated by Chang herself, the rest being translated by Karen Kingsbury. I’m not sure if it’s because the translation was done by a Chinese, or if it’s purely the language itself, but I definitely started to see some of the beautiful prose that others were raving about. Like this:

In old people’s memory the moon of thirty years ago was gay, larger, rounder and whiter than the moon now. But looked back on after thirty years on a rough road, the best of moons is apt to be tinged with sadness.

Then again, it could be just my infatuation with the moon, but I felt that this brought out all the romance and atmosphere needed to suck me into the story.

My favourite was the short story Sealed Off. The way the story started off was like watching an artist at his canvas, starting first with this colour, then another, then yet another, adding different elements and layers onto that once blank canvas, creating a story with every stroke of the brush. The story takes place within only a short period of time, zooming in on a chance encounter between two people as the city comes to a standstill. But the impact that Chang managed to create hit me quite hard. The story was both beautiful and sad at the same time. Though not your usual kind of beautiful, not your usual kind of sad.

I think in a way, that’s what sums up the collection. It’s a book of love stories that are not about the usual kind of love. It’s not about falling in love, or falling out of love. It’s not even about love as we know it. The kind of sadness that comes out of these stories almost make you want to pity the characters, but it never really reaches that level where pity comes naturally. It’s almost sad, almost love, almost devastating. But not quite. Which, I think, makes her such a unique voice.


Again, I don’t think I was as impressed with this book as both Mee and Claire were. But it was definitely worth reading.

Rating: 4

* Note: Our next book is my choice, Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask. Join us end of September if you will.


§ 15 Responses to Love in a Fallen City – Eileen Chang

  • mee says:

    Michelle, good to hear from you! We have the same favorite story (plus Red Rose, White Rose for me). Sealed Off has such an unusual ending, it’s amazing.

    The stories are sad, true, but I think the characters are so strong it’s like they don’t allow themselves to be pitied. Don’t you think?

    Would you read her other books? I’m dying to read Lust, Caution now. (haven’t watched the movie too. will try to read the story before watching.)

    • Mark David says:

      I’m very very interested in her essay collection Written on Water. I love essays from fiction writers 🙂

      I’ve already seen the movie Lust, Caution and though I cannot say I loved the movie completely, the story is just incredibly poignant! Let me know what you think of the written piece.

    • Michelle says:

      I think you put it exactly like how it is, Mee. The characters portrayed were definitely too strong to be pitied. In fact, I get the feeling that Chang probably intended her female characters to be that way; vulnerable to a certain extent, yet strong enough to be able to stand on their own two feet.

      I’m super interested in Lust, Caution, maybe more so in the movie, but now that I’ve given time for this book to sink in, I’m thinking maybe I’ll try out the book before watching the movie.

  • savidgereads says:

    I really want to read some of Eileen Changs work and am going to have to hunt her books down in the library as I think I would really like them. Mind you there is a great difference in thinking you will love a book and then reading the real thing.

    I read some Mishima earlier in the year thanks to my mother lending me her copy of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea so if I can get the next book your reading I will try and join in if thats ok? Will keep you posted on my hunting.

    • Michelle says:

      I hope you do join us in reading Mishima. I haven’t read him before, but for some reason, I think I’ll love his style (which incidentally, is the same way you feel about Eileen Chang!!)

  • I’ve barely read any Chinese literature. In fact, the only book that comes to mind is Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club. This collection does sound as though it’s worth reading, so I might just have to track it down!

    If I manage to find a copy of Confessions of a Mask, I’d love to join in as well. It’s actually kind-of embarrassing – how little Chinese lit I’ve read.

    • Michelle says:

      I don’t think I read that much Chinese Literature either. For some odd reason, I seem to find some trouble getting into the right frame of mind whenever I pick up something translated from Chinese. I keep feeling like there’s something wrong with the translation, or like it would have read so much better in its original language.

      It’s basically just me picking a bone with something imaginary, methinks. But still, sometimes it steals from the joy of reading.

      I do hope you get a copy of Confessions, though it’s not Chinese lit, I have to warn you!

    • kiss a cloud says:

      anothercookie, I hope you get to read Chang.. it is WAY different from Amy Tan. Love Amy Tan, too, but Chang is infinitely better (at least to me).

  • Mark David says:

    I’m almost finished with the book 🙂 So sorry, I’ve often felt distracted when I’m reading these days. But I’ll try to catch up as soon as I can. I’ve finished the first three stories and have started to read the fifth, your favorite story. That one sounds quite mysterious and engaging. My favorite story so far is the title story.

    How’s work, by the way? I hope you’re not getting too stressed out 🙂

    • Michelle says:

      The title story was my favourite until I got to Sealed Off. And like Mee, I preferred the last two stories to the others. Maybe it was just finally getting into the groove of reading her writing, because she feels like someone who needs a little bit of getting used to.

      Work has been good, busy and getting a little stressed, but really, nothing I can’t handle at the moment. Haha! =)

      • Mark David says:

        Great to hear that 🙂

      • mee says:

        I was too wondering if I liked the last two stories the most because I read them at the end, but my order of reading was actually Aloeswood, Love in Fallen City, Golden Cangue, Red Rose White Rose, Jasmine Tea, then Sealed Off. Quite at the end the two favorites, but Jasmine Tea isn’t a favorite. But anyway, very plausible theory 🙂

  • kiss a cloud says:

    Michelle, 4 is good enough for me! I’m glad we all (to some degree) liked this collection. Each story had its own strengths. Jasmine Tea was my least favourite as well, because it left a bad taste in my mouth. (Mee mentioned before that The Golden Cangue was evil, but I felt Jasmine Tea was evil-er.) Nevertheless, I have to concede to the fact that Jasmine Tea was such a powerful story. Not the most likeable, but definitely strong.

    The atmospheric descriptions in The Golden Cangue really contributed to the loveliness of the novella. They set the tone in which evil (to use Mee’s term) juxtaposes perfectly with beauty.

    Cannot wait for Confessions of a Mask.. am I glad you picked Mishima!

    • mee says:

      Claire, the way I see it in Jasmine Tea it was a short burst of evilness while in Golden Cangue it was over loooong period of time, and to her own daughter/in-law, rather to someone unrelated. As such, in the court of law contemplated crime is a bigger crime than the crime done in the “heat of the moment”. But anyway this is going a bit off haha. At the end Jasmine Tea is my least favorite of the lot too.

  • chasing bawa says:

    Hello! Your review has made me want to read Eileen Chang’s stories (as did Mee’s). I just watched ‘Lust, Caution’ last week and really liked it, although it left me with feelings of sadness, bittersweetness and turmoil. I can just imagine what some of her others stories must be like. I have to warn you though that the film is rated 18 for a reason! But the acting was truly amazing.

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