We review Running Away. New book to try or one to dodge?
Time Out Bahrain staff
4/5 Dalkey Sent by his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend to Shanghai to deliver an envelope stuffed with cash, the French narrator of Running Away meets his contact, Zhiang Xiangzhi, in the airport, and the two men make their way into the city. After giving him the cash and sharing an awkward evening, the narrator meets the enchanting Li Qi. She invites him to Beijing. He’s eager to ditch Zhiang, but strangely, when he meets Li Qi at the train station the next day, Zhiang Xiangzhi is there with her, smiling like an idiot. From that point on, neither the Frenchman nor the reader are ever quite sure what the mission involves and, in the constant motion and deliberate action of those around him, whether one is under way.
If that sounds frustrating, surprisingly it isn’t. The strange, often tense encounters that unfold are opaque in the way so much is opaque for a traveller immersed in a strange culture. And Toussaint’s presentation of this character’s sanguine bewilderment is so engrossing that it engenders a similar effect in the reader, who is also ‘stuck in the temporary between-ness of the journey’ and can only choose to drink it in as the narrator does. Scenes unfold so organically that the vividness of the writing itself eclipses plot details. Toussaint is a stylist above all, and ultimately the book asks the reader to accept that stylisation in place of the usual other pleasures. It’s a trade-off that might be easier to accept if the book didn’t make so many feints in the direction of something else entirely. You’ll probably have a lot of questions about the ending, and your relative comfort with that could colour your experience of the entire novel. Pete Coco