Nicole Mansour reviews Quincy Carroll’s debut novel, an exploration of cultural otherness and symbolic differences among expatriates in foreign communities.
Quincy Carroll, Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside (Inkshares, 2015) 224pp.
Six days ago, after touching down in my hometown – Sydney, Australia – I was unexpectedly overcome with feelings of being an interloper. For three and a half years I have lived in Hong Kong and although I still recall the wonderful assault of the sights, sounds, and smells of those first ignorant weeks, it wasn’t until I returned home that my experiences of being an ‘outsider’ were suddenly amplified: I had become used to Hong Kong’s quirks, was unmoved by its behemoth skyline, familiar with the chasms between extravagant and essential. I had learned to keep up with its rapid pace, too, the mellow Australian lifestyle feeling so laid back it seemed almost subterranean. It seemed I had needed to re-immerse myself in a familiar but forgotten Sydney for Hong Kong’s ‘otherness’ to vociferously reveal itself to me; it felt like I hadn’t taken a breath in more than three years.
Of course, anyone who has ever lived in a foreign country is no doubt acquainted with this sense of ‘otherness’, be it ambiguous or palpable. In his debut novel, Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside, Massachusetts-born author Quincy Carroll explores not only a cultural otherness but also symbolic differences among expatriates in foreign communities.
Set in the dull, semi-rural village of Ningyuan, in central China’s Hunan province, the core of the story revolves around two Americans teaching English at a local school: Daniel, a young, idealistic volunteer, recently graduated from university and naively seeking some sort of self-enlightenment as he begins his life out in the world; and the cynical Thomas Guillard, a slightly dubious sixty-year-old alcoholic from Minnesota, whose jaded attitude toward his foreign abode proves the source of much of the plot’s conflict. Between the two men comes Bella, an eager and enthusiastic Chinese student whose over-friendliness and vehemency for the West becomes tedious to both her tutors. As the novel progresses, Daniel and Thomas’ differences intensify, until eventually colliding at Bella’s family’s Spring Festival dinner. The closing chapters then bring a somewhat unpredicted – but perhaps slightly unpersuasive – ending to the story, before finally leaving the reader pondering the fate of its central characters.
Carroll’s own experiences in China – he spent two years in Ningyuan after graduating from Yale in 2007, then returned again, to Changsha, to finish his novel – are clearly evident in his work. His knowledge of Mandarin, and of Chinese culture, do much to enhance the story’s interest and bring a genuine honesty to the narrative, particularly the passages discussing Chinese festivals and celebratory feasts, which are both evocative and insightful. Even the title has its roots in Chinese history, ‘Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside’ being a slogan of the Cultural Revolution and its policy of relocating millions of urban youths to rural farming communities during the 1960s.
Where the story may be less strong is in the portrayals of the two American protagonists. Despite his conventional likeability, his eccentric gestures, and his proclivity for Chinese culture, Daniel’s zealous idealism often feels tiresome and implausible. In contrast, Thomas is ‘arrogant, lewd, and racist’, and Carroll offers the reader no substantial back-story to illicit empathy; the result is an outline of a rather shallow, disagreeable individual. Actually, for this reader it is the peripheral characters – such as the divorced local teacher using the school library as his crash pad – that feel more convincing than their central counterparts. Carroll’s language is, for the most part, vivid and visually descriptive, though stylistically the narrative is also occasionally unconvincing. This is especially the case in Carroll’s use of dialogue, which rather than fluidly linking conversation with story, sometimes obscures the line between protagonist and narrator.
That said, Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside maintains a steady pace, reaching its conclusion in a little over 200 pages. While it may lack the narrative depths attained by more experienced novelists, it does succeed in something very important: painting a discerning picture of expatriate life in China away from the more ‘Westernised’ coastal cities.
Nicole Mansour is originally from Sydney and is a graduate of the Actors Centre Australia, a former inhabitant of Buenos Aires, London, Melbourne, and Hong Kong. She has recently completed a BA in literature. Her writing has appeared online at Thresholds and Graphite, and her essay, ‘Beyond the Barren Landscape: Elizabeth Harrower’s A Few Days in the Country’ was longlisted for Thresholds 2016 Feature Competition.