The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai: Book summary and reviews of The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai by Ruiyan Xu

The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai

A Novel

By Ruiyan Xu

The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai
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  • Published in USA  Oct 2011,
    352 pages.

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Book Summary

A dazzling debut novel about the power of love and language...

Li Jing, a successful, happily married businessman, is dining at a grand hotel in Shanghai when a gas explosion shatters the building. A shard of glass neatly pierces Li Jing's forehead—obliterating his ability to speak Chinese. The only words that emerge from his mouth are faltering phrases of the English he spoke as a child growing up in Virginia. Suddenly Li Jing finds himself unable to communicate with his wife, Meiling, whom he once courted with beautiful words, as she struggles to keep his business afloat and maintain a brave face for their son. The family turns to an American neurologist, Rosalyn Neal, who is as lost as Li Jing--whom she calls James--in this bewitching, bewildering city, where the two form a bond that Meiling does not need a translator to understand.

First published in hardcover in October 2010
Republished in paperback October 2011

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"From the explosion of its first pages to the searing emotion of its last, The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai is a novel that burns with the heat of clashing cultures and love transformed. Ruiyan Xu is a wonderful writer with a perfect ear for both the words and the silences that define us." - Peter Manseau, Author of Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter

"What a gem of a debut. This is the most literary kind, rarely found in fictions about new China. There is such deep silence in her prose, hinting at the depth of human suffering, anguish and hope. A gifted novelist, she gives us the insight into a Shanghai that is at once strange, and familiar, old and new, creating a literary landscape for its dwellers that is vast and beguiling, which is precisely the spirit of this metropolis, and of this fine fiction." - Da Chen, author of New York Times bestselling memoir Colors of the Mountain and Brothers

"One part medical mystery, one part love story, The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai is an engrossing novel that will enchant you from beginning to end." - David Ebershoff, author of The 19th Wife and The Danish Girl

"In her captivating debut novel, Ruiyan Xu paints an absorbing portrait of modern Shanghai. When a terrible explosion leaves husband and father Li Jing without the language in which to communicate, the Li family must rediscover who they are and how to live. The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai is a richly nuanced and compelling story of loss and grief, betrayal and redemption by a gifted new voice." - Gail Tsukiyama, award-winning author of The Samurai's Garden and The Street of a Thousand Blossoms

"This is an intelligent and thoughtful exploration of the terrifying isolation that can come from loss of language. The novel skilfully examines the complex relationship between language and identity, seeing beyond the words themselves to the way in which they mould our thoughts and shape our personalities. With sensitivity and perception, Ruiyan Xu penetrates right to the heart of the dilemma of translation, the etiquette that is embedded within each language, the nuances of tone. This is a novel which makes us think beyond our boundaries, that opens up a fresh understanding of our relationship with language." - Clare Morrall, author of the Booker Prize finalist Astonishing Splashes of Colour

"The characters are portrayed with empathy and care, but the suspense over Jing's fate is lost in too many narrative digressions and an ending that falls flat." - Publishers Weekly

"Set in a dense, dizzyingly urban Shanghai, Xu’s elegant first novel affectingly addresses the way identity and language intertwine and the emotional anguish of estrangement." - Booklist

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Reader Reviews

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Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by Louise J
Good But a Tad Too Long
This was an interesting read however I found it to be a bit too long. The author could have shortened this story and still got her point across. I felt she went into too much detail and almost kept repeating the same things over and over only in different ways. I am glad I read the book, it just seemed a bit too long and I was thinking when is the end coming, let’s cut the on and on and get this finished up.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Mary O. (Boston, MA)
the haunting way language taunts us
This is a debut novel that paints a very haunting picture of loneliness, love and pain. The sing song lyrical quality of the prose reads almost like poetry. It evokes emotional isolation from page one and captures you until you finish the last page - I couldn't put this book down! It truly shows how silent and verbal communication, language and culture bond people together and painfully break them apart. A great debut for a highly talented author -

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Therese X. (CALERA, AL)
The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai
Communication is taken for granted in modern life, but what if a person suddenly loses the ability to respond in their own language, despite understanding the conversation? In the grand Swan Hotel in Shanghai, workaholic businessman, Li Jing and his father, Professor Li are drinking tea when a gas explosion rips the place--and their lives--apart. A shard of glass enters Li Jing’s forehead and when doctors try to communicate with him, he can only utter syllables in a strange language: English, Jing's first language, learned during childhood in Virginia before the family moved to Shanghai. Li Jing has spoken Chinese ever since. He courted his beautiful wife, Meiling, with all the beauty of the language, and now she can no longer communicate with him. Her icy tone of disappointment causes him such grief, he refuses to look at anyone who comes into his hospital room. In desperation, Meiling agrees to engage an American neurologist, Dr. Rosalyn Neal, who specializes in his condition: “bilingual aphasia”. Dr Neal has her own personal difficulties and this offer seems not only a chance for research into her field of study, but a well-needed challenge. She underestimates the consequences, however, especially the fact that she does not know a word of Chinese! Her initial days in this teeming city are so well described in the novel, a sense of buzzing, nonverbal “claustrophobia” affects both her and the reader.

In this beautifully written novel, the concept of language goes beyond mere conversational abilities. Language permeates everything: behavior, traditions,even personal relationships where words were formerly not necessary. Meiling’s impatience with her husband’s continuing disability, her son’s confusion with the change in his family, and this gregarious American neurologist’s constant stream of English keeps Li Jing mired in the language he has no use for and pushes Meiling farther away weakening the bond between them. When Li Jing’s business partners question her about his return, she is determined to keep his real condition a secret and takes his place, learning the business language of stocks, bonds and profits in order to keep the company afloat which depended on her husband’s former charisma and easy way with difficult customers. Again, communication is the key factor. One single action, a terrible explosion and one man’s disability causes many lives to fracture as a result of the loss of his “language of Shanghai”. Author Ruiyan Xu’s first novel is a marvelous, multifaceted journey into the world of language and human communication as well as the lack of it. Many rivulets of change combine to make and remake lives, and this could happen to any one of us.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by DawnEllen J. (Riverside, CA)
Lost and Forgotten - hardly!
"The Lost and Languages of Shanghai" is a hauntingly beautiful tale through which author Ruiyan Xu explores the subtle nuances of language and the role it plays in culture, identity, and relationships. When an accident severs Li Jing from his ability to speak Chinese, he is forced to communicate only in his nearly forgotten childhood English. Although physically able to recover, Li Jing's ability to interact with those around him is irreparably damaged. Li Jing and his beloved wife Meiling are trapped in their separate prison houses of language, to use Fredric Jamison's metaphor, unable to break through the walls of silence that now engulf them. The magic of this remarkable work lies in Xu's ability to capture the interior monologues of the characters in ways that engage the reader in their painful struggle to communicate that which they feel deeply but have no words to express.

The reader feels the anguish of Li Jing and Meiling because she, too, longs to cry out to them both and communicate what the other is feeling; but she too is mute, separated as she is from them by the construct of the reader/character relationship. Xu skillfully weaves flashbacks of the couple's relationship into the ongoing story of the way in which their inability to communicate with one another bifurcates their relationship and forces them to follow separate paths in search of new identities. More insidiously dangerous than the English-speaking doctor who threatens to come between them, is language, which inserts itself as a character in its own right. Language is vividly portrayed through the sensory imagery of an author who fully understands the power of the medium with which she works, but who also understands the power of love to overcome the insurmountable.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Carolyn G. (South Pasadena, CA)
Good first novel
I wasn’t sure that I was going to like this novel when I first started reading. By the time I got to the third chapter, I was hooked. The central character is Li Jing, a bilingual Chinese business man. An accident leaves him with a type of autism which lets him only able to speak English. Most of the story is told through the experiences of Meiling, Li Jing’s wife and Dr. Rosalyn Neal an American neurologist hired to help Li Jing recover his linguistic skills. While the plot revolves around a traditional love triangle, Ruiyan Zu brings some insightful and sensitive descriptions to several emotional scenes. I wished that there had been more description of Shanghai as I enjoy reading about different places. This is a good first novel and I would like to read more by this author.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Natalya M. (Medical Lake, WA)
Beautiful novel about language and relationships
A man goes has a brain injury and forgets his dominant language. He can only speak in English, the language he learned and used as a child. He can no longer communicate with his family and they enlist the help of a famous US neurologist, who specializes in bilingual amnesia.
The book is about the difficulties of language and how communication is the most important part of relationships. I feel the characters were very real and I could easily sympathize with them. The novel is beautifully written but I feel the ending could have been better.

...27 more reader reviews

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Ruiyan Xu, who was born in Shanghai but came to the U.S. at age 10 without speaking a word of English, graduated from Brown University with honors in creative writing. She won the 2004 Hochstadt Award from Hedgebrook and a 2005 Jerome Foundation Fellowship for Emerging Artists; and has been awarded residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Jentel, Ragdale and the Anderson Center. Visit her at ruiyanxu.com.

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