English by Wang Gang (Penguin)

We may all be familiar with the old adage, "Don't judge a book by its cover", but we should also include a new saying as well, "Don't judge a book by its title!"  "English" may sound rather bland; it may even be mistaken for a text book for ESL students and left untouched.  If this is the case,  readers will miss out on one of the best novels I've read this year.

This is Wang Gang's first novel to be translated into English from the Chinese.  The story is loosely based upon the author’s own life as he remembers living through China's Cultural Revolution.  The hero and the narrator of the story is twelve-year old Love Liu who lives in China's remote northwest region in a small village called Urumchi and now relates the novel through his adult perspective.

The story starts out with Love Liu's teacher Ahjitai entering the classroom with tears running down her face.  Love Liu describes her as a "double turner", which in Urumchi means that "the mother is Uyghur and the father is a Han Chinese, or the other way around." She was also the most beautiful woman in all of Urumchi.

The previous year, the class had stopped learning Russian and Ahjitai, being part Uyghur, had taught the students a bit of Uyghur.  But boys being boys, they didn't really care about the languages, they just enjoyed having a teacher as beautiful as Ahjitai...and now she was leaving.

The following day, Love Liu is surprised to see a well dressed man at school and quickly surmises that this man is the new English teacher.  His name is Second Prize Wang and he has just arrived from Shanghai.  But what really catches Love Liu's eyes is the navy blue book Second Prize Wang is holding, an English dictionary.  And with Love Liu's desire to learn English and to speak it well, a friendship grows between Love Liu and his teacher, much to the annoyance of his neighbor and competitive classmate Sunrise Huang.

Love Liu becomes obsessed with the dictionary as he tries to persuade Second Prize Wang to let him borrow it.  When his teacher refuses, Love Liu devises a plan to steal it.  But his plans fail as he almost gets caught—and discovers that his teacher Second Prize Wang is in love with Ahjitai.  He unwittingly lets his neighbor Sunrise Huang know, who gets jealous and tells the authorities that yes, Second Prize Wang had touched her during the private lessons he had been giving her.  As this is China during the Cultural Revolution, the slightest rumor or innuendo of misconduct can result in harsh punishment.  In the case of Second Prize Wang, Sunrise Huang’s false confession to the authority results in Second Prize Wang being sent to a labor camp. He was already under suspicion as an outsider, and  has no way to prove that Sunrise Huang has lied.

I don’t want to give away the ending of such a great book so you will have to read this to find out what happens to Second Prize Wang.  Will he die in the labor camp?  Will he ever be free again?  Will Sunrise Huang tell the truth to the authorities?  And what of Love Liu and his determination to own the navy blue English dictionary?   Finding the answers to these questions  makes reading this book well worth the effort.  by Ernie Hoyt