I picked up this book by Jennie Liu because I was intrigued by the title Like Spilled Water, and I immediately thought of the Chinese saying 嫁出去的女儿，泼出去的水, literally translated as “a married daughter is like spilled water”. I wasn’t wrong.
The story centres around Na, a vocational school student in China’s countryside, when her life is suddenly turned upside down by her younger brother’s death. She travels to the city, where her parents live an extremely frugal life while pouring all their money and energies into her brother’s education. She’s appalled to find that despite being the one with all the opportunities, he took his life with rat poison when he does badly in the national college entrance examination gaokao (高考). But having spent years apart and struggling with jealousy and the unfairness of it all, she finds it hard to grief. Her life falls apart when her mother tells her to stop school and get a job at a metal factory, and caretaker duties of her grieving and drunk father falls on her shoulders. She gets a sudden marriage proposal from her childhood friend, and as she tries to piece together truth behind her brother’s death, she has to decide what she wants for herself.
It’s refreshing to see English YA novels set in places and cultures that are less familiar to the Anglophone reader. It highlights several key social issues in China and blends them into a riveting read. Issues such as the one child policy, feminism, education & marriage, LGBT+ are discussed through the lens of the Chinese culture. Throughout the novel, the characters’ feeling of being constantly trapped really gets to me, and I keep thinking that if I was born somewhere else or in a different generation, perhaps I would have also gone through the same struggles.
And that sure hits home.