Time you spend in the past and the future is time you spend alone. But between them is a middle kingdom, both feet planted here. (280)
I like Andrea Barrett's fiction for its thoughtful and insightful blend of scientific and emotional issues. This isn't my favourite of her novels -- I don't get much sense of Grace's intellectual engagement with anything -- but I like the way Barrett explores big issues with subtlety and respect.
The story opens in China, just before the Tiananmen Square massacre: Grace is being urged by her friend Dr Yu Xaiomin to return to America and safety -- for Grace's son's sake if not for her own.
The rest of The Middle Kingdom consists of flashbacks that tell how Grace came to, and stayed in, China. Formerly the wife of hotshot lake ecologist Walter Hoffmeier, Grace suffered identity crisis and eating disorders, fell in love or lust with inappropriate people, and turned her back on science as a result of the emotional (and physical) distance between herself and her husband. Not until she meets Dr Yu, whose succint remarks jolt Grace out of her insulated complacency, does she start to take responsibility, to live her own life.
Part of the joy of the novel is the developing relationship between the two women, which starts when Dr Yu undertakes to help Grace with her Mandarin:
"yú with a rising tone means fish, and yŭ with a falling-rising tone means rain ... say after me."
I did, amazed at her singing language. ... Fish, rain, the effects of rain on fish, a fishy rain, a rain of fish -- in my mouth there had been no difference. I was slowly beginning to get the idea and as I did I began to understand the men behind us, as if static had suddenly cleared from my ears.
This is not a novel about eating disorders, psychological problems, et cetera, but without ever foregrounding Grace's eating problems, The Middle Kingdom lays them out before us. Grace eats 'to fill up what seems empty': she's reduced to animal passions. Graceless. There are multiple reasons for her fraught relationship with food, body, weight. On one level it's insulation against the world. On another, perhaps she's trying to recreate her beloved grandmother, whose diabetic obesity confined her to a wheelchair. Food is solace when Walter turns away.
At one point Grace steals a metaphor from her husband's work: "I'd learned to leave my other lives behind me like larval skins." But she hasn't. They're all still there, buried.
The Middle Kingdom also deals with memory. Dr Yu's husband used the classic technique of a memory palace during the Cultural Revolution; it was how he held onto what mattered while his education and culture was stripped away from him. Grace isn't that impressed: "as if a mind could stand to remember all it ever learned, as if the art of forgetting weren't just as important as the art of memory ... I was a master of forgetting." But she's forced to remember, not least by a fever that makes old memories bright as new, stimulating those specific physical parts of the brain that 'replay' events in the past. So Grace confronts her dead childhood friend Zillah, and realises that she's had a life of privilege compared to others: that when she and Zillah contracted 'scarlatina' (= scarlet fever?) the reason that Grace lived and Zillah died had less to do with luck than with circumstance.
Each chapter is headed by adapted prose from 'A Dialogue in the Hospitals' -- a paperback book containing lines in both English and Chinese, that the English-speaking Grace has to use in order to explain to the Chinese doctor that she has pneumonia. By pointing to the appropriate phrases, she makes herself understood. The phrases that Grace indicates are straightforward ones, but the chapter headings are more surreal:
PATIENT: I suddenly got a pain in the chest ...
DOCTOR: Have you grown angry with someone?
PATIENT: Oh yes! I had a quarrel with my husband...
DOCTOR: Are you still angry?
PATIENT: Yes, he is a stubborn fellow.
DOCTOR: In Chinese traditional medicine we say that ... anger attacks the liver and joy hurts the heart. I'll give you a prescription for your liver, and in the meantime please be happy all the time.
Grace's sheer joy in her growing understanding of China and the Chinese is fascinating: there's a sense of her finding a place as much as of self-discovery. A gentle and affectionate novel.