China Dreams by Sid Smith

Lost in a shadowy world of dreams where nothing is as it seems
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The Independent Culture

"He kept dreaming about China." So far, so simple, the opening words of this novel. Nearly all the chapters of Sid Smith's China Dreams start like that, with a statement about Tom - where he is (often in his old van, parked in some flaky London street), or how he is (groggy, disturbed, intent, asleep) - but the complexity of Tom's dreamworld is rarely far away. The dreams are of a revelatory sort, perhaps connected with Tom's comment, "Well, my head's a bit buggered, too much dope, I think."

Tom's China dreams suggest a scholarship about rural China at odds with his life as a young misfit with a country accent, trying to survive in Brixton and Whitechapel. When encouraged into car theft as a boy, he would risk loitering in the cars for the sake of "breathing other people's lives".

If this imaginative tendency was with him before he loved May Tan, it is his brief idyll with her that starts his China dreams. At first they are full of happiness, with Tom and May in jungles, hills, mountains. Then Tom is expelled from the Chinese takeaway where he works for May's father. May refuses to see him and the dreams get strange and obsessive - of mutilation, castration, May as a river witch, May and her brother making love to a ghost.

May Tan did have a brother, Johnny. As the dreams progress, the focus shifts towards his suicide and the reasons for Tom's expulsion, with some exploration of Tom's bizarre family background and Mr Tan's story. To say that everything has become clear by the dramatic ending would be to misrepresent the layered style of the writing, the brisk prose collaged with the startling imagery and ambiguity of folk tale-like narration.

An emphasis on how much this novel concerns English ideas of China or Chinese experiences of England might also be misleading. Tom's absent mother and weird father gave him such a frail identity that a girl from any unfamiliar background might have been enough to start his vicarious life in, say, Brazilian or Icelandic dreams.

The cover of China Dreams says that it loosely completes the trilogy about China that opened with Smith's award-winning Something Like a House. All three novels are very individual. This one is set in contemporary England rather than the recent past in China, but it is also looser in form, giving more freedom for those shafts of lyricism and tenderness for which Smith was already so remarkable.