The fog was thick when I left my bedsit and ventured out alone into the barren and murky city. I was heading for what used to be called a crematorium and these days is known as a funeral parlour. I had received a notice instructing me to arrive by 9:00 a.m., because my cremation was scheduled for 9:30.
So begins Yang Fei’s tale of the seven days after his death. Upon arriving at the funeral parlour to which he has been summoned, he is unable to be cremated as he has no burial plot paid for in his name, no place for his ashes to be buried. Instead he begins a state of limbo, where he is able to retrace his life and reconcile difficulties. This afterworld becomes Yu Hua’s utopia where class and the everyday struggles of living in modern China disappear.
Yang Fei’s life begins as he falls from a train during a surprise labour and is quickly swept to safety and adopted by a railway worker, Yang Jinbiao. As we retrace Yang Fei’s life we see the sacrifices made by Yang Jinbiao for his adopted son, and it is this relationship that forms the heart of the book. It is a reminder that in places we have not been, or know little about, that seem foreign and far away, our lives are more similar than we imagine. Yang Jinbiao worries about the Yang Fei’s future: will he be happy, successful, loved? And in turn, Yang Fei worries about his father when he needs to move to another city for work, and visits his father regularly, missing his connection to home.
As we follow Yang Fei reconciling himself with the life he has led, we meet the couple who helped his father raise him, his ex-girlfriend, his neighbours. We see the homes in which he has lived, the jobs he has had, the places he has been. It’s nostalgic without being sickly sweet.
Yu Hua also uses the everyday elements of these character’s lives to make statements about class in modern China. The corruption faced by a population helpless against state enforcement, particularly in regards to the endless need for development. People are forcibly removed from their homes to make way for new, modern skyscrapers, some crushed under the swift demolition, a sign of the constant and relentless pace of rejuvenation.
There is also an exploration of the invasive consumerism plaguing younger generations in China. Yang Fei’s neighbours constantly fight about money, riddled by poverty, yet it’s when the boyfriend gives his girlfriend a knock-off iPhone rather than the real thing which he can in no way afford that causes the greatest conflict of all.
The Seventh Day reminded me a great deal of The White Tiger and to a lesser extent The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of The Window and Disappeared, other tales of patches of history told through the retrospective of a charming central character. Like these books, The Seventh Day is easy to read and digest, but like The White Tiger in particular, hints at a darkness and repression seldom understood by those on the outside. What I loved most about The Seventh Day was the relationship between father and son, and particularly in the final chapters I wanted more of this and a greater reconciliation. It is such a heartwarming and poetic relationship, I’m sure I’m not the only reader who left wanting more.
The seventh day - a day of rest and observation. Lately I’ve been working part time but far from working to a routine, my hours have been all over the place. A few hours at night, a full day on the weekend, afternoon meetings - such as the life of a freelancer. This weekend is a long weekend in Victoria, but instead I’ll be working long days. I’m not complaining, this is often the case for people who work in events and with my trip edging ever closer I’m desperate to save as much money as I can. But it means I can’t do one of my favourite things: long, lazy weekend breakfasts with my partner (which I wrote about here). So on a Friday morning - which for me this week is my day of rest - I made myself a fancy breakfast and took my time. Scrambled eggs with a dash of milk and a handful of dill, smoked salmon, wilted spinach, a piece of goats cheese and a slice of nut, oat and seed loaf, pulled from the freezer. Sometimes we can’t dictate our own schedule, but we can always find time to observe little rituals that make us feel at home.
Recently I’ve been going for long walks in the afternoon. Partly as part of my recovery process (catch up here) and also because as we get closer to leaving Melbourne for a European adventure (read more here), I find myself feeling nostalgic for a neighbourhood I’m yet to leave. Knowing that I’m packing up our apartment, putting my books into storage with our furniture, that I won’t be able to while away hours at my favourite cafe or walk to the local market - it’s got me a bit emotional. I am fascinated by the idea of home - I guess it comes from being a traveller, from having lived away from Adelaide for almost eight years now across three different cities in three different countries. Recently I found two women who love to talk about this as much as I do: Katy Sewall and Tiffany Parks, the hosts of the podcast The Bittersweet Life. Best friends from high school, Tiffany has lived in Rome for ten years, Katy recently quit her job and lived there for a year, and has since moved back home to Seattle. In their podcast they talk openly about the joys and challenges of the ex-pat life, with an intimacy that makes you feel like you’re sitting at the other side of the kitchen table. As I walk around my beloved neighbourhood, my for-now home, trying to soak up all it’s idiosyncrasies and thinking about the adventures that lie ahead, listening Katy and Tiffany makes me feel like I’m amongst friends - the kind of friends that will be there no matter where you find yourself in the future.