Our favorite pick for August 2019
The Invisible Valley
Small Beer Press (2018)
There are few regimes that were as secretive as the Chinese government during the Cultural Revolution. Known for media blackouts, rampant propaganda, and widespread violence, this portion of Chinese history would eventually be revealed to be much more brutal than what the outside world had imagined at the time, with the entire populace suffering under systematic oppression.
The Invisible Valley takes this historical period to task from the perspective of someone who lived through it—current Yale professor and former agricultural re-education prisoner, Su Wei. Though based on actual experiences, Wei threads elements of magical realism throughout the novel, and he throws you into the uncanny right from the beginning when the main character, Lu Beiping, walks through the labor camp and accidentally picks up a red slip of paper which randomly selects him to be the new husband of the foreman’s dead daughter.
Since the foreman’s eldest daughter died before her younger brother could be married, tradition dictated that her spirit had to be married off before her brother could be wed. In an attempt to appease her restless spirit, her parents get him drunk and married to her ghost before he realizes what’s taken place, and when his hangover subsides the next morning, her father has already reassigned him from the camp to herding cattle up in the mountains where he will live (he believes) in solitude.
As is often the case in this story, what originally appears to be a simple situation quickly becomes more entangled the terror of living alone in the jungle fades and he encounters a band of drifters living up in the mountains out of the reach of the Chinese government. At first he avoids the group because it consists of one woman living with three men and their children, in his eyes a very untraditional and uncouth arrangement, but he grows closer to the family when he befriends one of their children and begins to visit them often. Their beliefs and lives are radically different than the indoctrinated, propagandized perspective that he had grown used to in the camp, and over time their innate freedom begins to loosen the grip of his fear.
The Invisible Valley is a fascinating glimpse into an oppressive regime
It’s a classic and effective trope; the longer Lu Beiping stays in the mountains the more he reconnects with nature and his individual agency, and the more rigid and dangerous the camp and his comrades appear. As he eases into a happy, hermetic existence, he becomes more intertwined with the family when the matriarch, Jade, decides that she would have him as her new partner, ironically associating him with her first love who recently passed away. His acceptance of her advances embroils him with the other men in her life, especially once she finds out that she’s pregnant, and he quickly learns that though they live outside societal norms, their group leader, Kingfisher, has many complex moral codes of his own that must be obeyed to keep the peace.
Rather than holding fast to state dogma, Kingfisher is an animist of sorts, insisting that certain behaviors be followed so that the snake spirit of the mountain, The Snakeweird, will not be awakened to bring its wrath down on their head. Though Lu sees these ideas as relatively primitive, he is content to adapt to them until his ghost marriage is revealed to the family. With this revelation, Kingfisher flies into a rage, strapping him to a tree and whipping him in order to appease the god of the mountain for his transgression. This episode shatters the fragile bonds that have been woven with Jade’s tribe up to that point, revealing hidden jealousies and tensions that had been simmering unspoken all along.
Kingfisher’s punishment is harsh, but Lu Beiping accepts it as a twisted result of his sincere belief, and it prompts him to begin deeply investigating the grave of his ghost wife, which lies nearby his hut in a secluded jungle grove, and the questionable circumstances around her death. When her family realizes that he’s asking questions, all manner of odd things begin to happen, and it eventually leads to a confrontation with the corruption that has been allowed to run rampant in the fiercely political and stratified society in which the camp exists.
Lu Beiping’s transformation throughout the narrative is one of emotional and spiritual import—as he discovers himself, he finds justice for a victimized girl, discovers his personal moral code, and questions the purpose of his life outside the strictures of civilization and within the darkness of the wilderness. The Invisible Valley is not only a fascinating glimpse into an oppressive regime, but also a complex examination of what truly governs men’s hearts and what matters most when cultural trappings are stripped away to reveal the man beneath.
Kelsey Capps is a writer and Reader in Residence at The Wild Detectives. Her short stories and reviews have been mentioned in a variety of publications including Hobo Pancakes, Literary Hub, and The Guardian, and she is finishing her second novel. You can follow her work and current reads on Instagram at @readwritethecraft.