Publisher: Penguin Classics
Publication Date: 31 July 2014
Format: Paperback, 400 pgs
Translated from the Chinese by Karen S. Kingsbury
Eileen Chang (张爱玲) is one of the most prominent authors in Chinese literature; and Half a Lifelong Romance (半生缘) is one of her most beloved novels. She's also the author for Lust, Caution (色,诫), and its film adaptation is released in 2007 (it is with this film that Director Ang Lee won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival for the second time.)
Set in 1930s Shanghai, Half a Lifelong Romance is a dramatic story of love, betrayal and family oppression revolving Shen Shijun and Gu Manzhen; two young people who fell in love with each other but unfortunately their love is tested and torn by circumstances and family pressures. Shijun is now the only son in the family (after his elder brother passed a few years ago); his parents separated although they are still legally married. It is common for a man to take a concubine during that time period and Shijun's mother could only tolerate despite her being the first wife. Shijun moves out of his Nanking home to work in Shanghai, where he befriended Manzhen through his college friend and now colleague, Hsu Shuhui, who's also working in the same factory.
Manzhen, on the other hand, comes from a poor family and faces the burden of supporting her family after her elder sister, Manlu, got married. Although Manlu still contributes to the family since her husband is quite well-to-do, Manzhen feels she should bear that responsibility now after what Manlu had sacrificed her youth, dignity and a good marriage for the sake of them, by being a taxi-dancer and an escort. Although Manlu's role has risen to the top by marrying off to a wealthy man, her marriage isn't blissful.
Manzhen and Shijun, though struggling in their own ways in work for financial and career prospects respectively, both of them are happy and satisfied with their simple life, until an unfortunate incident happens that shatters their dreams and drive them apart.
I've to say I enjoyed reading this novel very much. The story is absorbing, and the characterisations are great. Ms. Chang has created a cast of interesting characters; each of them so intriguing in his/her own ways. Manzhen is a strong, independent woman who has her own mind and is not afraid of hardships, while Shijun is a reserved and a responsible young man. Despite their differences, they complement each other through their love and respect.
At its core, this is a forlorn love story that makes you think that under certain circumstances, what people and misunderstandings could set off a chain of events that would wreck a relationship of a couple who's so much in love with each other. But, what most saddened me is the betrayal not among outsiders but by your own family members, which is in this case of the novel. Traditions, society and most of all, the traumas Manzhen had gone through are also a few factors that made it impossible to rekindle their relationship.
'Shijun, we can't go back.' (Pg 372)
While this is a sad story, what makes this novel stands out is Ms. Chang's skilful writing, the characterisations and the intricate plot which capture not only the readers' attention but to evoke their emotions as well. A beautiful, unforgettable classic in my opinion; I know this story will stay in my mind for a long time to come.