Cocoon: A Novel by Zhang Yueran

Cocoon: A Novel by Zhang Yueran

Yueran’s prose in Cocoon is to die for. I cannot express how effortless it was to read this book; opening it and laying eyes on the page was all I had to do and Yueran did the rest. It was like being carried on a gentle wave down a winding river.

That said, it was a very long, slow-moving river at times and often I found it hard to track with the direction Cocoon was taking me. I grasped that there was a mystery, but the typical sense of urgency a thriller engenders was missing here, lost in the literary focus on the characters and their interior narratives. It was, for me, both a deeply satisfying for that reason and also frustrating in that it wove around the plot circuitously. I still cannot decide how much I enjoyed the novel or the degree to which I was disappointed by it.

The novel spans three generations of two families, their histories twisted together by the events of China’s Cultural Revolution and communist regime. The characters have fallen into the chasms created by the divisive policies of the Cultural Revolution and it is their reconciliation with that fact which the reader witnesses. There are mundane tragedies: a father and son estranged by the shifting values, a marriage begun out of spite, a wife abused, a child abandoned. Then there is the mutual tragedy — a crime — which threatens both families’ futures, an act that arose out of the political climate of the Cultural Revolution. This is the great mystery of the novel. What was that horrific crime? Why and how could it traverse down through generations?

The two narrators are the 3rd, latest generation of these two families, the grandchildren of the Chinese Old Guard and the children of the “sent down” youths of the revolution. They are childhood friends and enemies simultaneously, caught in the mess of their families’ tragedy. The fallout of China’s cultural and political upheaval is told through their eyes. Through their perspective we see the actions and feel the torments of their parents and grandparents and the effect of these massive cultural shifts on familial cohesion.

They are the generation that grew out of and yet distant to China’s traumatic history. Theirs is a moment of a different upheaval: China’s return to a capitalist society, the abandonment of the austerity of the 1960s and 1970s. The novel dwells on their generation’s angst as well: the shifting ideas of sex, love, and success.

This is an epic multigenerational tale, filled with characters that are so perfectly flawed as to be real. The meandering path through their traumas, their lives, and their losses is well worth the long walk.

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