Shenzhen by Guy Deslisle

Everyday life in the city that serves as a communist country's main trading post with the capitalist West

Book Review by Daniel Wood | 12 Dec 2006
Book title: Shenzhen
Author: Guy Deslisle
A work colleague invites the artist Guy Delisle to dinner at his home. Delisle arrives at the door and steps inside the house to take a look around. But what is there to see? "There is no decor. The hospital-green walls are neon-lit. It's totally bare" except for a poster tacked onto the wall, "a photograph of a French-style table setting, with little plates nested in bigger ones, a porcelain tureen, silver cutlery. All things you never see here. It must seem so exotic to him." 'Here' is the city of Shenzhen in southern China; the colleague who can only dream of a French dinner-set is a Chinese national, locked into a restrictive life under an authoritarian regime; and the dinner-set is 'exotic' because although it is tantalizingly out of reach right now, it becomes gradually more reachable with each passing day as the massive Chinese economy continues to swell.

Having lived and worked in China almost a decade ago, Delisle, an animator by trade, turned to writing and illustrating the graphic novel Shenzhen to chronicle the Purgatorial push-and-pull of everyday life in the city that serves as the communist country's main trading post with the capitalist West. But it's a place where more than material goods are traded, as time and again Delisle finds himself not in China, but in some disjointed netherworld where dozens of cultures overlap and intersect, as at one point when a Chinese man is so eager to converse in English with the Quebecois author that when Delisle switches to French to avoid the conversation the other man fails to notice this change to a language he can't even understand. With clean, simple and spare illustrations, and an eye for capturing the quirky and telling moments of ordinary life that transcend the barriers of culture and language, Delisle employs the graphic form to its full effect in Shenzhen. He shows us something insightfully true about this alien place, in a simple way that nonetheless goes beyond simple words. [Daniel Wood]
Release Date: Out now.
Published by Jonathan Cape. Cover Price £14.99 Hardback.