The Last Lover by Can Xue

‘Underfoot the mess of spread-out books started to shake their pages, become fan-shaped, but there was no wind in the house. Maria knew these were the original source of Joe’s square, from which his stories extended, becoming a limitless web of stories. Now he had abandoned all this and become the story himself.’ p 249

Reading The Last Lover is like entering a labyrinth. All of the characters move between states of varying degrees of reality leaving the reader no firm ground upon which to gain a sense of stability so that the very nature of the real is itself put into question. The implication is that we all exist as simultaneous but varying versions of ourselves as interpreted by us and by others; identity becomes a series of interrelated stories.

Every possibly way of enhancing this outlook seems to be explored by Can Xue. As we move through different aspects of the different characters lives – all of whom seek to run from and to their lovers or loves – we are accompanied by differing hoards of animals or insects. Snakes, crows, mosquitoes, wolves, fish, wasps all buzz and bite, sting and poison, humming with a multitudinous singularity, all representing the complex nature of being alive as a unique reflection of an interconnected multitude of facets. The teeming sense of fecund nature overwhelming and infusing human life with, alongside the animals and insects, mudslides, earthquakes and the immensity of mountainsides, brings desire and procreation into the dream-weaving mix. Even plants are not to be left out with the disorientating power of woods and forests, the scent of roses and the haze of the poppy’s opium hanging in a complex fug over a novel whose heady cocktail induces a reader into a wandering mental state where the logic of dream takes over. This makes reading The Last Lover an imaginative feat.

Even as I read I knew I should be paying greater attention, thinking about how different characters stories took similar turnings, met with parallel dead ends. This is a book that could be read many times and even if I were to read it again and possibly again, I suspect that there would still be references lost to me, repetitions as yet unnoticed. Once again, it seems important to revisit the notion of this book as a labyrinth. It even feels like it could be the labyrinthine book at the heart of Borges’ story, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ (there’s probably a nice academic essay in their comparison). The shadows cast by some of the characters, the mysterious Eastern woman whose appearance shifts when seen through different characters’ perspectives, the need for witnesses, the distance perspective brings (because to look head on would blind), not only brings to mind Plato, but also suggests that the true last lover is the reader.

I haven’t outlined the plot and I don’t intend to. If you like the idea of being lost, trapped even, in worlds you can’t control, if you like having your mental landscape shifted off kilter and leant the uncertain clarity of dream, The Last Lover is for you. The Last Lover is entrancing, ensnaring, and vicious. I think it is no coincidence that this is the novel that broke my novel-a-week rule.

Next week (or rather this week) I’m reading Joseph D’Lacey’s The Book of the Crowman: Black Feathers Book Two, followed by By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel.