Far more daring and truthful than any of her other novels, The North China Lover is a fascinating retelling of the dramatic experiences of Duras's adolescence that shaped her most famous work. Initially conceived as notes toward a screenplay for The Lover, this later novel, written toward the end of her life, emphasizes the tougher aspects of her youth in Indochina and possesses the intimate feel of a documentary. Both shocking and enthralling, the story Duras tells is "so powerfully imagined (or remembered) that it . . . lingers like a strong perfume" (Publishers Weekly). Hailed by the French critics as a return to "the Duras of the great books and the great days," it is a mature and complex rendering of a formative period in the author's life.
The reader first sees Duras’ emphasis of feminism in the description of the main character, the young, French girl. A significant symbol is the men’s hat the young girl wears in the beginning of the story, along with the gold lame shoes. Even before the reader gets to know the character, we understand that she is not being depicted as an average, young girl her age. She is now associated with a sense of masculinity, and although, in the beginning of the novel, we only see it in her physical appearance, the reader can predict that this quality will affect the girl’s personality later on the story.
When the Chinese Lover enters the story, the reader’s understanding of the young girl’s masculinity is further confirmed through her interactions with the man and their sexual relationship. From the very start of his presence in the novel, the Chinese Lover comes across as a very soft, emotional man. His hesitance to sleep with the young girl is the first sign that his personality is not that of a typical male character in literature, and this realization is even more evident when the man is compared along side the girl, who is only looking for a physical relationship. To further the contrast their relationship, we learn that the Chinese Lover is “in love” with the girl, who does not love him back. In a typical romance novel, we read about girls who fall hopelessly in love with the male character and yearn to be loved back. Duras emphasizes an alternate perspective and turns against the social standards that are expected in literature.
Another aspect that reflects a role reversal is the descriptive sexual relationship of the main character and her perspective about the physical relationship she has with the Chinese Lover. Her detailed description of this aspect of their relationship is important because of the societal expectation that women do not experience pleasure from sex. Clearly, the reader can understand through her point of view that this is not the case, which is Duras’ purpose behind the visual details of their intimate relationship. Although this doesn’t necessarily further the argument about the masculine side of the narrator, it provides the perspective of the main character’s contrast to societal norms.
A character that provides a feminist perspective to the story is Helene. When Helene is introduced into the story, we see a strange behavior from the main character and we get the impression that she is attracted to Helene. The narrator is very descriptive in describing sexual feelings she has towards Helene and how she views her physical appearance. In all honesty, I found this relationship bizarre and at first I didn’t understand Duras’ purpose behind it. After reflecting on other aspects in the story, I would guess that Duras uses this character to emphasize the masculinity of the main character more so than any other aspect of the story. The feelings the main character has towards Helene are so obvious that it is as if the main character were actually a man. It could be seen as a lesbian relationship, but regardless of how literal the romantic feelings are in this part of the story, I don’t think the main character is gay. I simply think the intent is to make it obvious to the reader that the main character is a foil of what society expects of a girl her age, which can be argued to be a focal intention throughout Duras’ entire novel.
I read [L'Amant de la Chine du Nord] a few years ago. It is like a little Lolita-story.
It was my first book by [[Marguerite Duras]] and made her one of my favourite French authors.