Love in a Fallen City
by Eileen Chang
translated from the Chinese by Karen S. Kingsbury and Eileen Chang
NYRB Classics (2006)
344 pp

It strikes me that a reason I stopped posting so much here is that I got a bit tired of feeling like I needed to write a full review of everything I was reading. To be sure, that was, for me, a very beneficial exercise, but it also got a bit exhausting. Rather than moderate, I fell off! I started posting more on social media, which has been so much fun, but I have missed posting here. To get back in the habit of posting here, I’m going to post more frequently the stuff I’m posting on Instagram, where the space allowed is super short. But I still love the idea of having this space. So, here goes.

For those of you who don’t know, at the start of 2023 Kim McNeil started a project to read 24 books by women published by NYRB Classics. We read two per month, and I loved every moment of it. I was thrilled when Kim kept it going for 2024. Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City is the first book we read for April. We are currently reading Qiu Miaojin’s Last Words from Montmartre, which is a reread for me (see my post on it here); next month, should you like to join, we will be reading Life with Picasso, by Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, and The Mountain Lion, by Jean Stafford.

For years I’ve wanted to read Eileen Chang’s books. NYRB Classics has published four, and another is slated for next year. The titles are always enticing, Love in a Fallen City being a prime example. Thanks to #NYRBWomen24 I have finally started what I intend to be a steady reading of Chang’s works.

Love in a Fallen City is a collection of six stories, each written when Chang was in her 20s. Five were translated by Karen S. Kingsbury and one, surprising to me, was translated by Chang herself. The stories are often dramatic, filled with longing even as the characters—particularly the women—are also trying to find relationships that will be socially acceptable—meaning financially beneficial.

Though her stories are often dramatic and painful, Chang lulls us in gently. See for example, her opening paragraphs in two of them.

This first is from “Aloeswood Incense”:

Go and fetch, will you please, a copper incense brazier, a family heirloom gorgeously encrusted now with moldy green, and light in it some pungent chips of aloeswood. Listen while I tell a Hong Kong tale, from before the war. When your incense has burned out, my story too will be over.

And here, from “Jasmine Tea,” is another effort to help us readers settle in for a tale:

This pot of jasmine tea that I’ve brewed for you may be somewhat bitter; this Hong Kong tale that I’m about to tell you may be, I’m afraid, just as bitter. Hong Kong is a splendid city, but a sad one too.

First, pour yourself a cup of tea, but be careful—it’s hot! Blow on it gently. In the tea’s curling steam you can see . . . a Hong Kong public bus on a paved road, slowly driving down a hill.

And here is another lovely opening, this from “Love in a Fallen City”:

When the huqin wails on a night of ten thousand lamps, the bow slides back and forth, drawing forth a tale too desolate for words—oh! why go into it?

I realize that I’m saying much more about the opening than about the stories themselves. I hope this shows that Chang is deliberate in her storytelling, and we are in good hands.

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