Quincy Carroll’s Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside is, on its surface, a tale of two foreigner teachers in China — the idealistic, ‘in search of the real real China’, young Daniel; and the jaded, booze-soaked, cynical old Thomas. For anyone who has lived in China, they are characterizations of personalities we’ve all met, and perhaps been, at some point.
Their lives converge in Ningyuan, a rural town in southern Hunan, where they both teach at a local school. Daniel is a loved-by-all, teacher of good standing, who is eager to drink in every drop of authentic China the town has to offer him. Thomas, meanwhile, shows up in the town with a collection of burnt bridges behind him, and decades of damage to his liver turning his every action into a labour. Injecting herself between the two of them is Bella, an overachieving young student who is compulsive in her quest to learn English and consume foreign culture.
And while the characters have been inked as stereotypes familiar to any laowai, Carroll never missteps and falls blandly into cliche. The exceptionally well-written piece of fiction, particularly for a debut novel, is a joyful read. The story’s players, even minor ones, are fleshed out with empathy and understanding that can only be achieved by having been on the front lines. Indeed, it was from his own experiences living and teaching in Hunan for several years that Carroll drew for the story.
His expat cred and eye for detail gives the story an authentic depth that never tries too hard. While many idiosyncrasies are sure to pass by readers that don’t have experience in the country, the story is the better for it. The casually dropped peculiarities of everyday China living are never over explained, but rather left hanging for some to appreciate and others to ponder on.
Stepping back from the novel, you can see that it is not just a story of protagonist vs. antagonist. Daniel and Thomas are not simply two conflicting and conflicted individuals, but rather two points of the same story. They are the start and the end of a journey that doesn’t have any rules and can be punishing and propitious. The reasons for living abroad are as diverse as they are complex, and Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside is an excellent exploration of it.