For more than a decade, Britain’s most important writer on the 20th century, Hilary Mantel, has made a living turning her cross-cultural personality traits into speculative novels, historical and contemporary. “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” are ensemble dramas that are witty, smart and without restraint.
In the new book, “The Children of Men,” meanwhile, she follows the late Chinese revolutionary writer Mo Yan to his long-vanished home in a quiet corner of northeastern China. Mantel’s prose is far less straightforward, but her approach to the material is the same. She is a guide through a world that has vanished and has thus become even harder to read than the characters in Mo Yan’s stories. Her prose is witty and free-flowing, unlike the brutish, fatalistic “Children.”
Mantel introduces readers to some of China’s best-kept secrets — the tragic lives of street kids, the corrupt and overworked workers, the reclusive guerrilla fighters. Then she tracks Mo Yan as he paints a picture of an eminently believable, fragile, bourgeois protagonist in a utopia gone wrong.