Cocoon by Zhang Yueran review: remembering China's moment of horror

Ghosts of the past: Red Guards in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1966 - ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images
Ghosts of the past: Red Guards in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1966 - ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

In present-day China, two former friends, Cheng Gong and Li Jiaqi, meet again after decades apart. As they trace the threads of their feelings back to their childhood, they realise their relationship unspooled from a single violent event. Who, in 1967, at the Cultural Revolution’s height, drove a nail into Cheng’s grandfather’s head – an act that left him paralysed, and changed their families’ lives?

Zhang Yueran’s novel Cocoon is her third to come into English, thanks to translator Jeremy Tiang. At 39, she’s one of her country’s literary lights – Cocoon has been a bestseller there – and she crafts her story with patient skill, conjuring the dirt of provincial China, and decades of hurt between lovers and friends, with a procedural’s steady roll.

Our two narrators speak to us, and each other, in alternating monologues. Wading steadily into the past and sifting details from its depths, their tales are gradually bound together as their life stories are brought to light. This framing has an inherent romance: it casts Gong and Jiaqi as songbirds tied by fate to a call-and-response.

Zhang has a knack for concise evocation, in both romantic and comic moods. Memories of drunkenness are like “a lamp shining into a dark, dusty corner”; the tightness of a businessman’s collar recalls “someone strangling him to demand his money”. Gong recalls growing up in “a fog made of secrets” – the half-innocence, half-ignorance that adults impose on their progeny. (The flaws in Zhang’s writing are rare, but usually the same: childhood moments and adult encounters in which exposition is overheard.)

And the flickers of personal history can quietly suggest a national scale. In one disturbing passage, children cite Red Guard tortures as jokes; in another, young Jiaqi finds her stepmother’s abortion in the toilet – a half-sister she’ll never have. As the past gives up its ghosts, Cocoon becomes a tapestry.

Cocoon is published by World Editions at £13.99. To order your copy for £10.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books