Steve Noyes has written a wonderful book, but it’s the kind of wonderful book you want to throw out the window as soon as you’re finished. Or maybe just before, when you can see where it’s headed.
So this novel with the incredibly awkward title—It Is Just That Your House Is So Far Away—is both wonderful and frustrating, putting the reader in the uncomfortable position of trying to decide whether the frustration ruins and cancels out the wonder, or if the wonder is strong enough to smother the frustration.
First to the wonderful part, which endures for at least the first two-thirds of the book. Here we meet Jeff Mott, our somewhat feckless hero, a thirty-seven-year-old Canadian who confronts the approach of middle age and the remnants of his failed marriage by removing himself to China to teach English.
In contrast with his friend Mark, who has been teaching in China for four years and can’t speak a word of Mandarin, Jeff sets about learning the language immediately and with some enthusiasm. And again in contrast with Mark, who is married to a Canadian woman, lives in a posh apartment, and has insulated himself from any meaningful contact with the Chinese, Jeff is determined to meet the people on their own terms, embracing their food, music, literature, and, inevitably and most tragically, one of their women.
Jeff may be emotionally tentative in many ways, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t sensitive, and Noyes does a superb job of using him to impress upon the reader the strangeness of China and its people to Western eyes.
Through Jeff’s ramblings around Beijing and two small provincial towns, we see the grubby outdoor markets with tables bearing piles of skinned rabbits, hear the sing-song chants of toothless old women vending their wares, and feel the panic associated with getting lost in one of the hutongs, the narrow streets winding through the old quarters of the city, ripe with “strong smells of fried meat, garlic, rotting garbage.”
Through Jeff we also experience the constant humiliations involved with learning a foreign language as well as the rare triumphal moments of genuine communication. We feel his frustration when every attempt at humour ends in giving offense rather than pleasure, when every effort at penetrating the glass wall between him and the Chinese people is deliberately frustrated by his students and superiors at the university where he teaches.
But most of all, we sense the omnipresent and very palpable sexual tension that exists between the Western men and Chinese women in the book, a tension defined by mutual distrust. The men are afraid of being financially exploited, and the women of being seduced and abandoned. In a sense, the whole novel revolves around this tension and the way it plays out between Jeff and the young Chinese woman he falls in love with, Bian Fu.
She is undoubtedly the most fully realized character in the book. Noyes brings her to life not just through physical description and the drama of her actions, but by the words she speaks in her many conversations with Jeff. The author has a gift for dialogue, an ear for the way two people with different native languages struggle to communicate. In Bian Fu’s halting but serviceable English, through her pet phrases and exclamations, we actually see her take shape and begin to breathe and feel and react to her own growing love for Jeff. Her portrait is a marvelous act of creativity, and her character, in its complexity and strength, is unforgettable.
It’s only because of Bian Fu that Jeff finally breaks through that glass wall of reserve and propriety and begins — however haltingly and resentfully on both sides — to find himself accepted into a Chinese family, to be made a part of their daily routines and rituals. Within the walled complex of Bian Fu’s mother’s house, with its all-purpose courtyard and shifting population of relatives and boarders, Jeff seems more fully alive than anywhere else in the book. We sense that his discovery of the Chinese is really a process of self-discovery propelled by his love for Bian Fu; it advances not in spite but because of all the difficulties involved.
The reader’s interest never really has a chance to flag throughout this part of the book. The author is always introducing some new complexity in the lovers’ relationship, some new clash of worldviews that keeps the narrative moving and the characters developing. Unfortunately, all this comes to an abrupt halt when Jeff’s contract expires, and he returns to Vancouver Island without Bian Fu. Of course he swears to come back and marry her, swears that they will set up house together either in her country or in his, the place not being as important as the fact of their togetherness.
And of course, once he is back in Victoria, the slacker capital of Canada, inertia sets in and does something to Jeff’s heart. He reconnects with his young daughter, has a fling with a redhead he picks up in the grocery store, smokes a lot of dope with one of his slacker friends. That awkward title—It Is Just That Your House Is So Far Away — is its own hint of the decision Jeff will make in regard to Bian Fu, a decision based more on an excuse than a reason. “I’m not going to take the chance,” he tells his friend, sealing his own indictment. Not taking a chance on love is really a form of emotional suicide, and once he’s made his decision, the novel ends if only because Jeff himself ceases to exist.
The truth is that with novels the ultimate destination, which is death, is always the same and so to some degree beside the point. It’s the journey there — the emotional rush of getting lost in a hutong, the precise way your lover composes her face to prepare for bad news — that’s the important thing. For this reader at least, the joy of the journey in this particular novel more than made up for the disappointment at the end.”