The One with the Little Chinese Countryside Psychopath

Golo Zhao, Poisons (2019)

Be careful if you come across this standalone graphic novel. Golo Zhao has a very round and cute way of drawing characters that makes you think of a childish manga. But if you look carefully, the nice schoolgirl on the cover, in front of an idyllic pink sunset, has a weirdly fixed gaze and there are suspiciously blood-red splashes on her uniform. I would say that this book should be for readers 16 or above. I guess that in the US it would come with a TW for violence and emotional abuse.

The main character is Lili Zhang, a Chinese primary school girl (10 yo?) in a poor backwater village very far from the developed cities of China. She lives with her grandmother, who can’t really give her much more than the material basics of survival. The girl has no contacts with her parents (we’re supposed to understand that her mother is working far away in a factory in a city, probably to send some money back, but Lili just lives it as an abandonment), and no emotional support whatsoever from any adult around. Teachers berate her for her poor results, classmates shun her or bully her, and her only friends are two horrible girls who are even poorer than her (one of them mentally challenged) and whose idea of a good game after school is to roam into the village dumpster.

Lili is lonely, ashamed, desperate, but she hasn’t even enough self-awareness to know she feels that way. She only knows she has to do something radical to separate herself from her two “friends” that the whole village (including Lili herself) considers as mere parasites. Without adult presence in her life, without a moral framework, Lili shows no emotions and no empathy at all. The end is even more desperate, showing her happier in prison for life than ever before.

The drawing style, all in pastel hues and manga roundness and cutesy, creates a creepy dissonance between the images and the story.

It is all the more disturbing as the book is based on real facts, and the reader absolutely needs to read the postface with explanations about the social context to really make sense of what one has just read. Otherwise, it would too easily veer off towards disturbingly exhibitionism of senseless violence. I wish Golo Zhao would have woven more background context into the story, but he chose not to, I guess to make it more heart-wrenching and shocking (an easy trick maybe?). Interesting, but for readers who are ready for it and who know a little about the social situations of China.

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