What I’ve Been Reading: Once Upon a Time in the East, by Xiaolu Guo and Hungry, by Grace Dent

These are two ostensibly different memoirs, but they have in common authors who reveal an immense force of vulnerability, strength, tenderness and passion. Both women have sharp intelligence, gritty determination and a gift for insightful, vivid writing.

In both books, we explore childhood: Guo’s in rural China and Dent’s in working class Carlisle. Both authors write about family, in a raw, reflective tone, describing the imperfections of familial love and loyalty with skill. In Guo’s recollections, her strongest bond is with her grandmother, who was humble, abused, poor and loving. Her grandmother’s story is told vividly, painfully even, giving a voice of sorts to a woman who never had one in life. Meanwhile, Dent’s family memories, told with humour, are complicated, imperfect, but often happy. Her dad is the flawed, morally dubious hero, to whom Grace remains devoted (if in a self-critical, eyes-wide-open kind of way).

Class and money are also a common theme in these books, though explored in different contexts. Both authors write eloquently about their struggles for opportunity. They are both “self-made” women, who found their passion, worked hard and forged their writing careers for themselves. I was with them both, throughout their books, willing them on and inspired by their resilience. Both instill in me a new desire to get on and do the things I dream of and to claim for myself the opportunities I would like.

Of course, both writers also share an obsession with food. For Guo, whose early years were dominated by a very literal hunger and lack of nourishment, her search for sustenance includes constant cravings for the iron found in blood soup. Dent’s journey with food in the West, meanwhile, takes us from cooking “sketty” and popping to the corner shop for chocolate, to the arrival of the new Asda in her home town, then her adventures in the fanciest of restaurants as a food critic and her efforts to cook for her parents as they get older.

I recommend both books wholeheartedly: Guo’s for an intense description of her life in the East (and her travels to the West); Dent’s for her gorgeous warmth and humour; both for the sheer force of their stories.

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