A secret flowering

Under the Hawthorn Tree, by Ai Mi, translated by Anna Holmwood, Virago, RRP£12.99, 352 pages

Ai Mi’s love story Under the Hawthorn Tree has sold one million copies in China and been adapted into a film by the celebrated director Zhang Yimou, yet it remains shrouded in mystery. Details about Ai Mi – a pseudonym – are in short supply. All we know is that she left China to study in Florida, and that the novel, first released serially online and then printed by a state-backed publisher, is inspired by real-life events.

The novel begins in 1974, in the dying days of China’s Cultural Revolution. Jingqiu, a model student at senior high school, is sent to work in the countryside to be re-educated under a directive from Mao Zedong. There she lodges with the Zhang family, where she meets the handsome geologist Old Third over meals of fried vegetables and rice.

At the time, romantic love was identified as a bourgeois pastime. As Jingqiu’s father is in a labour camp, having been branded a capitalist, she is under extra pressure to fight off Old Third’s advances and avoid heaping further punishment upon her family. Although she plays hard to get, Old Third is nothing if not persistent: he ignores the absurdities of the political system and courts her with gifts and secret visits. Eventually they begin a love affair, which ends, tragically, almost before it has started.

Under the Hawthorn Tree is an example of old-fashioned storytelling, written in the style of “scar literature”, a term that refers to the outpouring of works in the late 1970s that portray the psychological damage inflicted by the Cultural Revolution. This type of fiction became unfashionable with China’s post-1980s generation of writers but, who knows, perhaps this book will kick-start a revival.

Ai Mi’s subtle descriptions of the hardships faced by Chinese people at this time are occasionally moving. But unlike Su Tong’s restrained yet compelling novel The Boat to Redemption (2010), based on a womanising official during the tumultuous decade leading up to 1976, Under the Hawthorn Tree is undone by clumsy, wooden prose.

At the point when the couple finally consummate their love, the novel descends into farce. “She held it tightly, but her hands were only small, so she couldn’t hold all of it. She squeezed it lightly. It moved.” Moments later, after the couple have been “flying”, Old Third says: “Don’t be scared, it’s not dirty. It’s what babies are made of.”

In China, Under the Hawthorn Tree is trumpeted as “the cleanest love story in history”. For a story that centres on illicit passion it is disappointing that such pivotal moments are reduced to slapstick.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.