Only the Cat Knows

Through the first half of her spare, intricate novella Only the Cat Knows--recipient of the 2020 Red Hen Press Novella Award--Ruyan Meng brilliantly builds a mounting sense of claustrophobia. A factory worker labors hard every day but is unable to sustain his family. His wife can't work because their two younger children are seriously ill; meanwhile, their older daughter seethes with resentment. He already owes his younger sister more than he can repay, a fact she uses to berate him even as she relies on him to be her on-demand handyman, as he is for many of his neighbors.

While dreaming one night of finally receiving his long-awaited (though paltry) raise, he's awakened by his wife at 3:30 a.m. and sent for their rations and staples. Somehow, he loses the 10 yuan that is all they have for an entire month of food. His desperate reaction to this loss, one that accelerates the narrative toward horrific tragedy, fuels the novella's second half. "Life isn't living anymore," his sister had recently remarked, "but, it's only a long, resigned period of waiting for something better, something that will probably never happen." He can wait no more.

Meng writes with impressively taut control: her pacing--from stifling to breathtaking--is especially remarkable, as is her vocabulary (thaumaturgic, adamantine). Born and educated in China, Meng crafts fiction with factual provenance: her bio reveals that her stories are inspired by true events in a Chinese "worker village" of the 1950s. And yet geography matters little here: Meng presents a universal catastrophe in which she deftly proves 10 yuan is the breaking point of humanity. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

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