Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo

A review of the contemporary literary novel Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo.

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Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth follows Fenfang as she moves from her tiny monotonous rural village to Beijing, where her life might not be monotonous but certainly doesn’t seem particularly enjoyable. She works at various jobs, and eventually becomes a film extra, getting a steady flow of unremarkable roles while dealing with unsuitable romantic entanglements.

Fenfang’s voice was the main point of enjoyment for me; she’s very sardonic and blunt, and while her voice isn’t flowery or linguistically impressive, it’s very honest and clear. I particularly enjoyed her description of sleeping with her boyfriend Xiaolin, who later becomes angry and violent when she leaves him:

… Xiaolin always held me close, as though afraid of our naked bodies parting. If I slept with my back to him, he would curl his body around mine, his arm resting on my ribcage, his warm, hairy legs entangled with my legs. I, too, depended on him to sleep. I’d prop my toes on his ankles, and stroke his fingernails with my thumb. Sometimes, if I slept with my ear on his chest, I could hear his heart beat like a drum.

Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo

I think my dissatisfaction, or maybe disquiet, when reading the book, comes from the unhappiness that seeps through every interaction Fenfang has. She never seems happy, she never seems satisfied or content. There’s a lot of talk about food—the food her mother cooks her, the instant noodles one of her boyfriends loves, the coffee she drinks to avoid headaches, the chives she wishes she grew but doesn’t—and she admits that she’s always hungry. Her friends don’t like to eat out with her as it ends up taking up more time and money than they’re willing to spend. She’s always looking to consume food, but she’s never full, and that constant desperate search for more nourishment fills the whole book with a gnawing sense of longing.

Even at the end (Spoiler alert!) when Fenfang sort-of-achieves her dream and sells her movie script, it’s difficult to feel happy for her, as it’s not a solid resolution. It feels like a temporary fix; it may satiate her for a moment, but tomorrow or the next day, Fenfang will be moving on again, still ravenous, still searching for her next meal.

Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.

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