Book Review of Mo Yan’s Frog

mo yanI dare say the English speaking world will be hearing more from Mo Yan, a Chinese author who won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Frog is an interesting novel with possibly too much going on. The subject matter – China’s one-child policy and its implications for those living in a rural village – is certainly interesting enough without many of the additional structural elements.

To begin with, we have a powerful focal character in Gugu, a local midwife who begins the text as a kind of feminist hero, bringing modern midwifery techniques to the village and dispelling old and dangerous superstitions. However, she soon turns from local saint to local tyrant, when the communist party introduces the one-child policy and she determinedly does everything she can to ensure the villagers do not defy the party – whether this be unknowingly fitting young mothers with contraceptive devices, to late term abortions for those who try to make their own rules.

The narrator of the text is her nephew, nicknamed Tadpole, an aspiring playwright who wants to write a play about his aunt’s life. To him, she is a figure of great awe. The final part of the text is that play.

Each section also begins with a letter from Tadpole to his mentor – to whom he is ostensibly telling the story of Gugu’s life as a midwife. Again, this does not add a lot of necessary content of the plot of the characters.

In the later parts of the book, Yan slips in to magical realism to attempt to reflect the ways in which the people eventually tried to subvert the process. In doing so, he questions the concept of what makes a mother, and mocks our attempts to control this primal process. I’m not really sure how else this would have ended otherwise, so I can get on board with this. But the simplicity of the first half of the story has its own beauty though. An intriguing read, if disappointing in places.

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