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Duras: The North China Lover (cloth) Hardcover – Import, 29 Sep 1992
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An original and powerful book, with the brutal honesty of a black-and-white documentary. -- Chicago Tribune
The North China Lover sends a strange thrill through you. . . There is a strangeness in [this] novel that is its own, a quality that keep[s] this story from being reduced, and in the end makes it, for all its brevity, immense. -- New York Times Book Review
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: French
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Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
The narrator grows up in a dysfunctional family (always a good topic for a novel.) Her father died, and her mother was swindled out of her small inheritance, leaving her to struggle to put enough food on the table, and cloth the kids, on the meager salary of a governmental "fonctionnaire," the headmistress of a French school in a small town, Sadec, in Cochin Chine. In age, she is between her two brothers, Pierre and Paulo. Pierre is deeply troubled, into opium, and much else, and causes problems for the rest of the family, particularly the mother, and his other brother. With this sort of background, the narrator feels an utter lack of reticence, and is ready to look life full in the eye. So, when the young Chinese millionaire makes her an offer of a ride into Saigon, she is ready to "grab the brass ring," and rid herself of her virginity.
Duras writes in a clipped, matter-of-fact style, conveying much via strong sections of dialogue. The place of their assignation is a room, one of many built by the Chinese millionaire's father, basically for that purpose, since so many Chinese "arranged marriages" seemed to result in the husband keeping a mistress. After all those years, Duras still vividly recalls how the light would come through the blinds into that room, at all hours of the day. In this twice-told tale, Duras describes in far greater detail how her mother was swindled by "colonial scum," which is depicted even more in Un barrage contre le Pacifique which I shall soon read. Also, she recalls her relationship with her brothers, and, of course, she covers the mother - daughter relationship. As one might suspect, the narrator's new-found extracurricular activity causes her substantial problems back at the boarding school, with the mothers of the other girls leading the charge. Her one true friend, Helene, whose family in Dalat seems to be "dumping" her, may all so be a candidate for "coming-of-age."
Overall, it is a realistic view of the interwar (yes, which wars?) period, of the French colonial rule in Indochina. Duras places in her novel considerable "cues" as to how the book should be depicted cinema-graphically. To me, that is always the problem, since it invariably comes across too nostalgically, too bathed in "mellow-yellow," which, in ways, it was for Duras. For as Rod Stewart has famously sung: "The first cut is the deepest." 5-stars, plus, for this oh-so-relevant insight into what it was like to be a young French girl in one of their colonial possessions. It wasn't all "madeleines" and tea, was it?
From what I understand, Duras wrote "The Lover," which was later made into the movie "The Lover," and then rewrote the book base more like the movie.
The movie version is, in my opinion, more coherent by far, but this book version explains things in the movie that could have been misinterpreted or not at all. Naturally, the movie version differs, but I think in a better way.
"The Lover" is one of my all-time favorite movies; not because of the sex scenes, but because of the love scenes.
This book is wonderfully full of love and tragedy, and love.
In "The Lover", the reader cannot get a sense of who these people were, the wealthy Chinese man and the poor white girl from Siagon. "The North China Lover" gives us what we need to believe in them. We get a truer sense of who this Chinese man was, his elegance, intellgence and sensitivity, his kindess. We learn more about the young girl, too. Her wildness, her misery over her family and their poverty, and her strong, uninhibited love. We meet her miserably poor and strange family, really for the first time. The "little brother" and the young girl's "treasure" Paulo; the older, cruel, despotic, and lost Pierre; her faded, weak, and yet somehow genteel mother. We also meet Thanh (mostly excluded from the film), an orphan from Siam whom the girl's mother picked off the street to be chaffuer, caretaker, and serrogate child. Duras loved them all, and she shows us why. We love them with her.
Because of my fascination with "The Lover", and with Duras herself, I found this book to be a gift of sorts. It fleshes the story out, it adds imagery that was mostly left out of the first book and out of the film. Saigon becomes real, the story becomes real. The writing style may bother some readers, but not readers of Duras. It's still her, but with an edge. The book is also written as a companion/screenplay for the film, so it's a bit disjoined at times. That, too, is classic Duras. If you enjoyed "The Lover", please read "The North China Lover". You won't be disappointed.