Expatriate translator Alice Mannegan spends her nights in Beijing's smoky bars, seeking fleeting encounters with Chinese men to blot out the shame of her racist father back in Texas. But when she signs on to an archaeological expedition searching for the missing bones of Peking Man in China's remote Northwest deserts, her world cracks open. As the group follows the trail of the Jesuit philosopher/paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin to close in on one of archaeology's greatest mysteries, Alice finds herself increasingly drawn to a Chinese professor who is shackled by his own painful memories. Love in all its forms--human, sexual, divine, between a nation and its history, a man and his past, a father and his daughter--drives the story to its breathtaking finish.
Emotionally charged and erotic, this widely translated bestseller has been universally praised for its authoritative portrayal of a China rarely captured in contemporary fiction. The novel's accolades include the Kafka Prize for the year's best work of fiction by any American woman, the Pacific Northwest Bookseller's Association Book Award for the year's best novel from the five northwestern states, and the New York Times Book Review's Notable Book and Editor's Choice.
Nicole Mones doesn't waste any time getting to the heart of the matter in her first novel, Lost in Translation
. Within the first 10 pages we discover that protagonist Alice Mannegan, an interpreter based in Beijing, has a yen for sex with Chinese men. By the time we reach page 20, we've learned that Alice is in full flight from her father, a racist U.S. congressman, and about to start working for Adam Spencer, an American archeologist on the hunt for the missing bones of one of the century's biggest scientific finds: Peking man. Having set the stage, Mones steps back and lets her characters do the work as she proceeds to spin a tale that is part mystery, part love story, and part cultural exchange. Alice and Spencer travel to a remote region of China, accompanied by Dr. Lin Shiyang, with whom Alice falls in love. Mones spends a fair amount of time on the team's search for the bones, whose mysterious disappearance during the Second World War has never been explained, but her main focus is less on finding Peking man than on exposing the skeletons in her main characters' closets. As Alice, Spencer, and Dr. Lin move forward in their quest, they are forced to reckon with their pasts. Each, it seems, has an ulterior reason for being where they are and doing what they do, and it is in the subtle play of personalities, motivations, and misunderstandings that Lost in Translation
finds its rhythm.
The key to the novel's success is Mones's in-depth knowledge of China's culture, history, and politics. The question of cultural identity is at the core of her tale, and she skillfully weaves various aspects of Chinese life--from ancestor worship to the Cultural Revolution--into the personal relationships of her characters. By novel's end, readers have discovered a great deal about archeology, China, and most especially about the unmapped territories of memory, desire, and identity. Lost in Translation is a fine first novel, the first salvo of a promising literary career.