Book Review - Cocoon

Zhang Yueran is one of China’s “post-80s” writers, also known as the Y generation. Born in 1982 in Jinan, Shandong, in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and the one-child policy, she grew up in the Reform era. This epic novel (which took Zhang seven years to complete) is a stunning evocation of China’s recent past and a poignant examination of how events reverberate through the decades.

Former friends Li Jiaqi and Cheng Gong meet in their childhood home on the campus of Jinan’s medical university. Jiaqi’s grandfather, “the most famous heart surgeon in China”, is dying of lung cancer and she has returned to care for him in his final days. Zhang uses startling imagery in her opening pages to illustrate her protagonist’s alienation: “I stood by his bed, feeling death hover like a flock of bats.”

The pair have not met for 18 years and attempt to lay to rest the ghosts that still haunt them. In the course of their conversation, they revisit the family secrets that helped destroy their own hopes and dreams. Their narratives are given equal weight in separate chapters, although Jiaqi’s is the more memorable. As they drink through the night and share their stories, old wounds are reopened and emotional scars retraced.

Zhang is interested in the psychological fallout of China’s Cultural Revolution on her generation. Both her characters are neglected by their fathers, who, Zhang suggests, are victims of the harsh times in which they grew up. Their parents’ disillusionment initially unites the friends but, later, it rips them apart. Zhang writes perceptively about Jiaqi’s relationship with her father: her desire to be loved by him; his coldness towards her; her subsequent inability to form lasting attachments. The passages describing his indifference towards his young daughter are heartbreaking.

Jiaqi and Gong are surrounded by the vestiges of state oppression, vividly conveyed by their childhood playground – Dead Man’s Tower. Originally constructed as a water tower when the Germans inhabited Jinan, it became the gruesome home for the cadavers and spare organs used in the university’s dissection classes and experiments. It’s a sinister wasteland, the soil permeated with formaldehyde. Jiaqi swiftly recognises its importance: that “anyone who came here would be afraid to commit any crimes, especially capital ones... it wasn’t easy to squander your life and not leave behind anything of value—they could always come and gouge it out of your remains.”

The central act of violence that drives the narrative takes place in 1967. As hospital manager, Gong’s grandfather is denounced by rebels in a “struggle session”. He’s beaten up and left unconscious in the Dead Man’s Tower, a brutal attack from which he never fully recovers. Later, the family discover that someone had inserted “a two-inch iron nail in his cranial cavity that must have entered through his temple, leaving a scar so small no one had paid it any attention”. The nail had rusted, spreading infection through his brain tissue and leaving him in a vegetative state.

It’s the children’s desire to know who committed the crime that leads to their own fracture. As Jiaqi observes: “Secrets become secrets and get hidden away because they have the capacity for destruction... It’s hard to say what it was that suppressed our childhood creativity, but we couldn’t create, only destroy. Or maybe it’s because in this country, destruction is always seen as the highest form of creation.”

Zhang believes “the point of literature is to bring us to a deeper level of existence, so we can experience something we never have before.” She manages to do just that in this remarkably astute novel, superbly translated by Jeremy Tiang. Her compelling narrative never lets up as she weaves together threads of memory which the reader has to unpick to reveal the truth. Cocoon is a powerful and stark account of intergenerational trauma. 

Originally published by New Humanist