Blue Hunger by Viola Di Grado

Blue Hunger is a novel about an Italian woman who goes to Shanghai after her twin brother’s death and finds herself in an obsessive love affair. The narrator, who doesn’t share her name but often goes by her brother’s, Ruben, moves to Shanghai to fulfil the dream of her brother, who recently died. She teaches Italian and meets Xu, a Chinese woman also trying to avoid the past. They meet in abandoned factories and slaughterhouses and in Xu’s apartment, filled with rotting food, where they take yellow pills and hunger for pleasure and pain, but the narrator always wants more.

This is a dreamlike novel that combines the imagery of consumption with ideas of grief and need. It also explores language, particularly the gaps in between Chinese and Italian (the novel is translated from Italian), and how language impacts self and identity, and the narrator’s views of different cultures. The relationship between the protagonist and Xu is filtered through this, and through the fact that you can only see the relationship from one side. The relationship itself is a fairly classic kind of all-consuming love in a foreign city, focused on hunger and need, and whether what we want is good for us, though blurbs describing the book as abolishing all taboos are definitely over-exaggerating.

The book presents an interesting, uncanny view of a grieving person in a foreign country, seeing both place and language through their own lens, and someone looking for an all-consuming kind of pleasure to erase the past. As you’d expect from the premise, it isn’t really a book with much of a plot, but more moves through scenes in an artistic way, more surreal than engaging with the realities of their lives.